Israel Pressing Egypt to Crack Down on Smugglers

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel says Egypt is turning a blind eye to the terrorists who are smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip. The issue took on new urgency this week, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Egyptian officials to discuss the situation.

Following the meeting on Wednesday, Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman told The Jerusalem Post that Egypt is "working to end [the smuggling] soon." There was no formal announcement, however.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said on Thursday that Israel was waiting to see if Egypt would crack down. "We feel a level of unease and concern about what is going on...[regarding] smuggling into Gaza," Mekel said by telephone. "The test will be in the results," he said.

Israel says Hamas is engaging in a massive arms buildup by smuggling tons of weapons, ammunition and explosives across the 7-mile long border. Egyptian security forces are either ignoring the smuggling or in some cases facilitating it, Israel says.

Israel has complained about the smuggling for some time. (Last week, Israel reportedly sent videotapes to Washington of Egyptian officers helping Hamas smugglers at the border. Israel wants the U.S. to pressure Egypt to tighten security at the border.)

And this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Egypt was doing a "terrible job" in stopping the smuggling.

Her comment drew a particularly sharp reaction from Mubarak, who was quoted on Thursday as saying that Livni's comment had "crossed the line with me."

Dr. Yoram Meital, a professor of Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University, said there are several reasons for the escalating tensions between the two sides, and he said those tensions are not likely to ease any time soon.

Israeli frustration has been growing over the situation in the Gaza Strip where Hamas and the Islamic jihadists are growing stronger and better armed, Meital told Cybercast News Service.

Meital said the reason for this week's angry Egyptian response has to do with the timing of Livni's comment - which came as some in Congress have been considering cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt, said Meital.

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is visiting here and is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was quoted earlier this week as saying that it would be appropriate to make U.S. aid to Egypt conditional on Egypt's efforts to stop the smuggling.

It probably won't happen, however, since Egypt is a major U.S. ally - and is considered by the U.S. to be a relatively moderate force in the region.

U.S. aid to Egypt skyrocketed after then-President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords -- the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation (Egypt).

U.S. aid to Egypt has become the basis for Cairo's economic, security and foreign policy, Meital said. Touching it is "taboo" and any suggestion that it be reduced is sure to trigger an angry response from Cairo, he said.

(Although Congress has made moves to withhold U.S. aid to Egypt, so far it has not happened.)

Neither Egypt nor Israel wants a Hamas state in Gaza, but they have different perspectives on how to approach the organization, Meital said.

Israel wants to isolate Hamas and, if necessary, mount a massive military campaign against the militant group in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. backs the idea of isolating Hamas.

But Egypt, while it does not want a Hamas-controlled Gaza on its border, is against isolation or a military approach.

Egypt wants to smooth relations between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Egypt's goal is to bring about new elections in the hope of establishing a single Palestinian government that would control Gaza and the West Bank as well as handle negotiations with Israel as the sole representative of the Palestinians, Meital said.

Egypt previously has played the role of peacemaker in inter-Palestinian conflicts between Hamas and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction.

Deputy spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv Brad Hurst said the U.S. was talking to both Israel and Egypt and encouraging them to discuss the issues.

He noted that Egypt had recently purchased new equipment intended to help it detect the smugglers' tunnels that run under the border.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.