Israel Urges Egypt to Act Against Hamas
Israel says Egypt is doing far too little to stop the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, from smuggling weapons, militants and cash into the area from Egypt, and is appealing to Cairo to do more.
At the same time, a senior Israeli legislator from the opposition party Likud who is close to the security services is lobbying the United States Senate to withhold some military aid to Egypt unless it takes action.
The legislator, Yuval Steinitz, has written to all American senators to encourage them to support a move begun in the House of Representatives to freeze $200 million of a projected $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. Mr. Steinitz said he was asked to write the letter by senators he met as a leader, with Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, of a joint group on defense that meets twice a year.
The House bill would freeze the $200 million until the secretary of state certified that Egypt “has taken concrete and measurable steps” to enact a law protecting the independence of the judiciary, to “curb police abuses” by providing training for police leadership and to “detect and destroy the smuggling network and smuggling tunnels that lead from Egypt to Gaza.” The Senate version urges Egypt to do more to stop smuggling but would not halt aid.
In his letter, Mr. Steinitz, former chairman of the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and chairman of the security subcommittee, accuses Egypt of allowing Hamas to obtain 20,000 rifles, 6,000 anti-tank missiles, 100 tons of explosives and several dozen Katyusha rockets and shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles.
In the last three months, Mr. Steinitz says, Egypt has allowed “the organized departure of large groups of operatives from Gaza for military training in Iran.” In September, he notes, 100 Gazans who had trained in Iran were allowed by Egypt to return home despite Israeli protests.
The Egyptian authorities say that the accusations are inaccurate and that they are aimed at sabotaging Egyptian-American relations. They say that they have done all they can to try to safeguard the border, but that they are hamstrung by the 1979 Camp David agreement, which restricts the number of soldiers they can deploy there.
“Egypt can’t have a real security presence on the border,” said Fouad Allam, former director of Egyptian State Security. “Egypt tried to amend this, and Israel refused.”
Mr. Steinitz’s assessments track those of the Israeli military and military intelligence. His complaints are shared by the Israeli government. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday told her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, that “there is a real need for a determined effort to stop weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.”
But the government does not associate itself with the Steinitz letter or its call to freeze aid to Egypt, which, like Jordan, has a formal peace treaty with Israel.
The House move was led by Representative Gary L. Ackerman and Representative Nita M. Lowey, both Democrats from New York who are considered strong supporters of Israel. Mr. Ackerman is chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia, while Ms. Lowey is chairwoman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Ackerman told the newspaper Haaretz that Egypt had been allowing $12 million to $20 million a month in cash to flow to Hamas, and said smuggling had worsened. “Egypt is not helping as much as it can,” he said.
Egypt has sent senior officials and military officers to Washington to argue against the freeze and to describe their efforts to stop the smuggling. In a document given to legislators, Egypt suggested that some Israeli soldiers were helping smugglers.
The Bush administration opposes withholding aid. A Senate foreign policy aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of negotiations in Congress, said the Senate seemed unlikely to back withholding aid because it does not wish to signal a weakening of support when Egypt has a crucial role in the Middle East peace effort. But the aide said the issue would have to be resolved in a conference committee.
On Wednesday, Egypt said it had uncovered six more smuggling tunnels and destroyed them; it announced the destruction of others on the eve of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s last trip there.
Months ago, just after Hamas took control of Gaza, men in the border town of Rafah who had identified themselves as smugglers said that when smugglers were caught ferrying items into Gaza, they were treated more leniently by judges who were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They also said security guards at the border could be persuaded to look the other way for money.
Over all, Egypt’s relationship with Hamas is complicated by domestic political concerns. On one hand, analysts said, it is not in Egypt’s interest to improve relations with Hamas, an offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On the other, Egypt does not want to be seen to be helping Israel over the Palestinians.
“I do not think that Egypt is re-examining its relationship with Hamas, because any legitimacy for Hamas negatively affects the legitimacy of the Egyptian regime,” said Emad Gad, an analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Any success for Hamas is a success for the Muslim Brotherhood.”
When Egypt opened its border with Gaza in September to allow Hamas militants to pass through, analysts in Egypt said that it was probably part of some deal. Newspapers in Egypt reported that Hamas turned over a wanted militant from Al Qaeda in exchange for the passage, a deal the government never confirmed.
“This would be a political crisis for Egypt,” Mr. Gad said. “People will say that Egypt is cooperating with Israel against the Palestinians. And Egypt cannot do this.”
Analysts added that Egypt had cultivated an unofficial relationship with Hamas partly because it was such a large force that it could not be ignored and partly in the hope of bringing greater unity between Hamas and the Fatah faction of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.