Anshel Pfeffer, Barak Ravid
January 23, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel has taken a favorable view of an Egyptian request to increase the force of its border guards along the Philadelphi Route by at least 750 - and possibly as much as 1,500 - according to a senior Israeli political source.

Meanwhile, the head of the political-security bureau at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, discussed the matter of expanding the Egyptian border force with Omar Suleiman, head of the Egypt's intelligence, in Cairo last night.

In Rafah, residents told Haaretz that the Egyptians had deployed 1,200 regulars whose mission is to secure the border and prevent smuggling.

The senior Israeli political source said that Gilad had also updated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on his talks with Suleiman. The source added that even though it is not clear what the precise number of additional soldiers to be deployed will be, Israel will agree to a larger force.

It is also unclear whether the broadening of the Egyptian border force will become part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, or whether it will be a tacit agreement between the two. If the agreement is to be anchored in a written deal, the cabinet and the Knesset will need to approve it because it will alter the peace agreement of 1979.

"Increasing the Egyptian force will not constitute an obstacle to the understandings between the two countries on the issue of smuggling," a political source said yesterday in Jerusalem. "This is not what will make this deal fail."

Regarding possible numbers of Egyptian troops, the senior political source said that currently there are 750 troops along the border and Egypt had asked to double that number in the past. However, now tripling the force is being considered, raising the number to 2,250, and enabling 750 soldiers to patrol in three shifts 24 hours a day.

The issue of expanding the Egyptian force had been at the crux of a loud debate between the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Following the breach of the Rafah crossing by Hamas in January 2008, a cabinet meeting was held at which time officials of the Foreign Ministry recommended that Egypt's proposal for a larger force should be accepted.

The Defense Ministry, and particularly Amos Gilad, opposed the Egyptian request, and the matter was tabled.

However, following Operation Cast Lead and the understandings reached between Israel and Egypt to stop smuggling, it appears that there has been a change of heart at the Defense Ministry on the matter.

Yesterday there were reports that Egypt had deployed regular troops - as opposed to border guards - along the border with the Gaza Strip near Rafah, even though there are clauses in the peace agreement with Israel that prevent large numbers of regular army troops so close to the border with Israel.

The deployment of the troops, along with a small number of armored personnel carriers, appears to be an effort to prevent Hamas from breaching the border wall like it has done in the past.

Local residents in Rafah told Haaretz that the new Egyptian force numbers about 1,200 men, mostly stationed in Rafah, a few kilometers from the border. Entrances to Rafah are blocked by Egyptian police from the unit charged with public order and whose main task is to prevent non-residents from entering the town. In the town itself army vehicles are a common sight and roadblocks have been set up in roads and alleys leading to the border fence.

Hamas officials return to Egypt for talks on maintaining truce

Hamas officials based in Gaza have returned to Egypt for more talks with Egyptian mediators on the Gaza truce.

They say the discussions will focus on a working paper to consolidate the
cease-fire with Israel following the three-week offensive. They spoke after crossing from the coastal strip on Friday.

One official said the talks - slated for Sunday - will also address the fate of Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit. He was captured by the militants in June 2006.

The Hamas officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

The six-day-old truce remains fragile. Israel wants a halt to arms smuggling to the militants, while Hamas wants an end to Gaza blockade. Hamas demands the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.


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