CAIRO (IPS) — Throughout October, Israeli officials reiterated longstanding claims that Egyptian authorities were failing to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, which has been governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas since June. According to many local commentators, however, the Israeli accusations are chiefly intended to achieve broader political ends. “The Israelis are trying to pressure Egypt into reinforcing the ongoing siege of Gaza,” Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and independent member of parliament, told IPS. “At the same time, they are hoping to sabotage the relationship between Cairo and HAMAS on one hand, and Cairo and Washington on the other.”
In mid-October, Israeli officials stepped up claims that Cairo was “not doing enough” to stop the alleged flow of illegal arms under the 14 km border separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip. According to Israel, smuggled weapons often end up in the hands of HAMAS, which has been branded a “terrorist organization” by both Washington and Tel Aviv. “Israel continues to gather intelligence on smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, which has greatly increased since HAMAS has taken over power,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Oct. 14. The paper went on to report that some 1,650 RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and 6,000 bombs had been smuggled into the territory since the beginning of the year. Only two days earlier, Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter was quoted as saying that “Egypt could stop the weapons smuggling within one day if it wanted to.”
Cairo, for its part, was quick to deny the claims, insisting that authorities were doing their utmost to find and destroy subterranean tunnels used in cross-border smuggling operations. “Egypt rejects any accusation that it is … turning a blind eye to smuggling,” a foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying in the Oct. 15 edition of official daily al-Gomhouriya. He went on to emphasise that border containment was a “top priority” for Egypt. Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the Shura Council’s committee for Arab affairs, also stressed Egypt’s commitment to uprooting “smuggling tunnels.”
“Egypt has continued to find and destroy many of these tunnels, the existence of which also affects Egyptian national security,” Basyouni told IPS. “After all, these tunnels can be used to smuggle weapons — or anything else — in the opposite direction, too.”
Egyptian authorities discovered two such underground passages near the border on Oct. 15 and 16. According to reports in the local press, police arrested three Palestinians found nearby, and seized limited amounts of ammunition and explosives. Nevertheless, Israel continues to claim that Cairo could do still more to combat the phenomenon. In a “strongly-worded” communiqué to Washington, Tel Aviv went so far as to warn that arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip could potentially derail the upcoming U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference, according to Haaretz.
The conference — scheduled to convene this month in Annapolis in Maryland in the U.S. — is ostensibly devoted to restarting the long moribund Israel-Palestine peace process. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also raised the smuggling issue during an Oct. 16 meeting in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. “We’re concerned about the smuggling,” Rice said at a joint press conference following talks with her Egyptian counterpart. “We will continue to have discussions about what more can be done to deal with the matter.”
The Egyptian foreign minister, however, strongly defended Egyptian efforts to curtail the practice. “What really displeases us is that some Israeli circles are raising the issue internationally…That is something we really object to.”
Aboul-Gheit went on to describe Egypt’s limited military presence on the border as a significant “impediment” to containing its northeastern frontier. Under the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David peace agreement, Egyptian military deployments to the border with Israel are strictly limited to a maximum of 750 border police. “We will have to discuss the issue with the Israelis (and) the Americans to see what ways would result in the increase of Egyptian forces which would ensure the discovery of such tunnels,” Aboul-Gheit said. Basyouni agreed that Egyptian efforts to secure its border with the Gaza Strip were sorely hindered by the agreement’s strict limits on military deployments to the area. “Before its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel was unable to stop smuggling into the territory, despite the presence of all its military and intelligence services,” he said. “Now they expect Egypt to do it with only 750 border guards. “Egypt must be allowed to increase its security presence in the area if it is to reduce cross-border smuggling operations,” Basyouni added. According to Zahran, however, the recent intensification of Israeli smuggling allegations are simply an attempt to divert attention from more serious political issues in advance of the Annapolis conference. “By putting the spotlight on alleged arms smuggling, Israel is trying to take the focus off more pressing matters,” he said. “Matters such as the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a return to pre-1967 borders, and the issue of Jerusalem.”