Egypt aid conditioned on enforcing Gaza siege

Palestinian security officers prepare to seal a tunnel at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, December 2005. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

CAIRO, December 27 (IPS) - Last week, both houses of US Congress agreed to withhold 100 million dollars in financial assistance to Egypt following Israeli claims that Egyptian authorities were failing to prevent weapons smuggling to the Gaza Strip. Cairo, for its part, denounced the decision, while local political analysts saw the move as a heavy-handed pressure tactic on the part of Washington’s pro-Israel lobby.

US financial aid to Egypt has always been subject to pressure by the Israeli lobby,” Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and head of state-owned print house Dar al-Tahrir, which publishes prominent daily Al Gomhouriya, told IPS. “The decision violates Egyptian sovereignty — and dignity — and requires an unequivocal response.”

Egypt normally receives 1.7 billion dollars of US financial aid annually, making it the second largest recipient of US largesse after Israel, which receives three billion dollars a year in military assistance.

The congressional decision came in response to long-standing Israeli claims that Egypt was not doing enough to stop weapons smuggling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. The new bill also alludes to Egypt’s spotty record vis-a-vis police torture, and the lack of judicial independence.

The new aid budget has already received final approval from the senate and is expected to be passed by Congress within weeks. If implemented, the decision would represent the first time that US assistance to Egypt — provided since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David peace agreement — has been significantly reduced.

But passage of the bill is by no means certain, with US President George W. Bush — citing the potentially negative impact on US-Egypt diplomatic relations — threatening to veto the measure. In addition, the bill stipulates that the aid reduction would not be applied if the US State Department verifies that Cairo is satisfactorily addressing the smuggling issue.

In recent months, Israeli allegations of Egyptian border negligence have proliferated, with several high-level Israeli officials claiming that Cairo was turning a blind eye to the flow of illegal arms across Egypt’s 14 kilometer border with the Gaza Strip. They say that smuggled weapons often end up in the hands of Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, which has governed the territory since June.

Although branded a “terrorist organization” by both Washington and Tel Aviv, Hamas enjoys considerable popular support throughout the Arab world due to the movement’s steadfast resistance to the 60-year-old Israeli occupation.

In mid-October, Israeli public security minister Avi Dichter was quoted as saying that “Egypt could stop the weapons smuggling within one day if it wanted to.” In recent weeks, Tel Aviv — buttressed by frequent reports in the Israeli press — has stepped up the pace of its accusations.

The 18 December edition of Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post cited “recent assessments” indicating that, since June, Hamas had smuggled “100 tons of explosives, millions of bullets, hundreds of anti-tank missiles and even a small number of Katyusha rockets” into the Gaza Strip, much of it via Egypt.

But Egyptian government officials deny the claims, insisting that authorities were doing their utmost to combat cross-border smuggling activity.

“Accusations of Egyptian security negligence are false,” Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the Shura Council (upper parliamentary house) committee for Arab affairs, told IPS. “Egypt has consistently worked to combat smuggling operations.”

Basyouni went on to stress that Egyptian anti-smuggling efforts “are not carried out at the behest of Israel, but rather because the phenomenon represents a threat to Egypt’s own national security.”

On 12 December, Egyptian police reportedly confiscated 500 kg of explosives in the northern Sinai Peninsula. According to security sources quoted by Reuters, the seized explosives were probably headed for the Gaza Strip.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zeki, quoted in the 22 December edition of Al Gomhouriya, blasted the recent congressional decision, saying that it would “only face rejection by the Egyptian people and all Egyptian political groups.”

He also emphasized the strength of Cairo’s long-standing rapport with Washington, stating that both capitals agreed on the importance of overcoming the issue “in a way that doesn’t negatively affect relations between the two countries.”

Zeki went on to blame Washington’s powerful pro-Israel lobby for playing an instrumental role in the decision.

“It has been obvious from the outset that a powerful presence — both inside and outside the US — is interested in damaging the Egypt-US relationship,” he stated. “It is well-known that Israel’s lobby (in the US) played a role in the matter in order to achieve its own objectives.”

Abu al-Hadid echoed Zeki’s assertions.

“The US is under pressure from the Israeli lobby, which has orchestrated the media campaigns that have sustained the controversy over the assistance bill,” he said.

Abu al-Hadid went on to suggest that the recent spate of smuggling accusations was launched “in retaliation for Egyptian reluctance to fully normalize relations with Israel.”

Cairo has had full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv since the signing of the Egypt-Israel Camp David peace agreement in 1979. But due to Israel’s heavy-handed Palestine policies, the notion of fully normalized relations with the Hebrew state remains broadly unpopular on the Egyptian street.

According to Emad Gad, analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and expert on Israeli affairs, Egyptian efforts to police the border with the Gaza Strip are seriously hindered by stringent conditions set by the Camp David agreement.

Under the terms of the treaty, Egyptian military deployments to the border area are strictly limited to a maximum of 750 border police.

“What’s more, only about a third of this limited force is actually deployed along the border at any given time,” Gad told IPS. “Therefore, Egypt can’t be expected to contain the area with 100 percent success.

“Although Cairo has asked for a treaty amendment allowing a larger border force and the use of helicopters to police the area, the Israeli military establishment had consistently refused the request,” he added.

Gad went on to suggest that the recent US congressional decision — whether implemented or not — had more to do with geopolitics than with border security.

“The decision is simply a way of pressuring Egypt into making political concessions to U.S. foreign policy elsewhere,” he said.

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