Israeli warning on Gaza tunnels

12:01 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Israel has warned of renewed military strikes on Gaza if tunnels used for smuggling in goods from Egypt are reopened by Palestinians.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the situation could not return to how it was before Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza, which ended last Sunday.

But media reports say that some of the tunnels are already back in operation, with fuel being smuggled in.

Diplomats are continuing talks in Egypt aimed at finding a lasting truce.

Destroying the network of tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was one of Israel's main aims when its offensive began in late December.

The Israelis say the tunnels are used to smuggle weapons in to militants from Hamas, but the Palestinians argue that Israel's tight control of their borders means the tunnels are the only way they can get enough fuel and basic goods to survive.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that 150 tunnels had been destroyed during the Gaza assault.

Before their offensive in Gaza was over, Israeli officials had said they had destroyed 60% to 70% of the tunnels.

But media reports now say that some tunnels are already back up and running.

TV images on Wednesday showed a truck being filled with petrol, apparently smuggled in through a tunnel.

And on Thursday, one tunnel owner told Reuters: "Soon it will be operational, I will not bring drugs or weapons, I plan to use it to bring in what people need most - food and fuel, and that is very profitable."

Israel bombed the tunnels heavily during its offensive, and Ms Livni was clear that Israel would not tolerate the resumption of smuggling.

"Things must be clear - Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all," the AFP news agency quoted her as saying.

"If we have to act, we will do so, we will exercise our right to legitimate defence, we will not leave our fate... to the Egyptians, nor to the Europeans nor to the Americans."

Sticking point

Meanwhile, Palestinian medical workers in Gaza City said at least two people had been wounded in shelling by an Israeli gunboat.

And diplomats gathered in Cairo were continuing their efforts to find a lasting ceasefire agreement for Gaza, with the issue of smuggling at the top of their agenda.

Israel is expected to urge Egypt to put an end to the practice, while Hamas is likely to demand that Israel relaxes its control over Gaza's borders.

At least 1,300 Palestinians were killed, nearly a third of them children, and 5,500 injured in the Israeli operation, which began on 27 December, Palestinian medical sources in Gaza say.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, have been killed, the Israeli army says.
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