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US army installs Gaza monitoring system

Dec. 12, 2009 7:23 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 15, 2009 9:43 A.M.)
Al-Arish – Ma'an – Egypt's plan to build an underground wall along its border with Gaza, first exposed by the Israeli daily Haaretz, is the second of two initiatives backed by the US military, Ma'an has learned.

In recent months, US army engineers have moved forward on a two-phase, multimillion-dollar project to stop the flow of weapons and money into the besieged coastal strip.

The first stage of the initiative includes the installation of below-ground, state-of-the-art sensors capable of detecting sound or movement nearby. US experts began the process about one year ago, and it is nearing completion.

The sensors are about the size of a human fist, planted below Rafah with cables running inside pipes 15 meters deep along the borderline. Each sensor is linked to an electronic panel and a computer screen, which documents below-ground activity. Whenever movement or sound is detected nearby, the sensors send details about the location and dimensions of its source to a special security system.

Four US military engineers are responsible for monitoring these sensors and analyzing activity to differentiate between new digging or everyday goods smuggling. In all cases, US forces have kept the Israeli side informed about any detected movement, despite that the entire operation is conducted on Egyptian soil.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a debilitating blockade on Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007, preventing all but a trickle of imports and exports, and banning the coastal enclave's 1.5 million residents from traveling. Palestinians have resorted to building a vast network of underground smuggling tunnels, providing Gazans with a variety of banned commercial goods.

American assistance has been instrumental in Egypt's management of the siege. Egyptian security sources say authorities are aware of nearly 1,300 underground tunnels, of which 450 were taken over this year.

Phase two

But Cairo is hesitant about the second stage of the project, the installation of a steel wall underneath the borderline that Haaretz revealed earlier this week. This phase, which gained traction six months ago, is unpopular among Egyptian officials who feel pressured to go along with what they consider a purely American-Israeli initiative.

US officials have confirmed some involvement in the first stage, but deny that a second phase even exists.

The steel wall and sensors were being installed along 10-11 kilometers of the 13-kilometer border; two to three were excluded because the soil is so soft along this stretch that it naturally prevents the maintenance of stable tunnels. The exclusion zones are referred to by officials in Rafah as International Marker No. 1 and No. 3, both of which are near the beach.

All these plates and sensors were manufactured in the United States. Six months ago, freighters delivered the plates to a port on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, where they were loaded onto military trucks and transported to Rafah under a shroud of secrecy.

The panels, which sources say were transferred through Sheikh Zweid city, measure 18 meters by 50 centimeters and are about five centimeters thick. They were designed to snap into place parallel to one another, arranged side by side to increase the underground border wall's horizontal length and effectiveness against the smugglers, who occasionally use explosives when digging.

Egyptian authorities have installed a network of these plates on two sites along the border; one is located about four kilometers north of the port, and another about 500 meters south of the Rafah terminal. Security forces have lowered them into the ground under the guise of performing routine maintenance work. They have also employed ordinary equipment, such as machinery for digging water wells, as not to arouse suspicions. As of press time, however, portions of the steel panels remained exposed above ground.

Egypt has officially denied any involvement, but Ma'an learned that the state confiscated or purchased private land along the border to implement the plan. Most of this land was owned by farmers, who separately accepted above-market compensation from buyers actually representing Cairo. Hundreds of trees have been uprooted over the past few months as authorities construct the underground system.
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