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Israel Plans Deep Trench in Southern Gaza - 2004-06-18

Israel has published plans to build a deep trench in parts of the southern Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt. The military says it will help stop Palestinian militants from smuggling in weapons.

The Israeli Defense Ministry has published a tender to solicit bids for building a four-kilometer-long trench between Gaza and the Egyptian border. The ditch is to be 15-25 meters deep, and more than 100 meters wide, and is to run along the so-called Philadelphi route, the Israeli military patrol road. It will face the populated area of Rafah, which the military says poses the greatest threat.

Israel has long accused Palestinians of building tunnels underneath the border, and of using them to smuggle in weapons from Egypt. Israeli troops routinely go in to destroy these tunnels, often demolishing Palestinian homes in the process. In one such operation last month, Israeli troops destroyed dozens of Palestinian homes in Rafah. The operation also resulted in clashes that left more than 40 Palestinians and seven Israeli soldiers dead.

Palestinian officials concede that tunnels exist, but say they are used mainly for smuggling in cheaper consumer goods from Egypt.

Israeli security officials say the current patrol road would have to be widened to accommodate the trench, and that could mean more Palestinian homes would have to be destroyed to make room. But officials stress details will not be known, until the bids come in, and that will likely take a few months. Initial estimates are that building the trench would cost millions of dollars.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat is quoted as saying the trench is yet another attempt by Israel to turn Palestinians into prisoners.

The Gaza Strip is already surrounded by wire fences, and Israel controls the air space over Gaza and the seas off its coast. Israeli troops have also set up security outposts around the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza to protect them from Palestinian militant attacks.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to dismantle those settlements and withdraw Israeli soldiers from Gaza by the end of 2005. That plan is meeting with stiff opposition from political hardliners and pro-settler groups, but has the support of the majority of the Israeli public.