Israel sees weapons flow from Egypt reaching crisis proportions

Friday, September 24, 2004

TEL AVIV Israel's military has been pitted against the government in the debate over a response to Egypt's failure to halt the flow of weapons and operatives to the Palestinian insurgency.

Officials said the dispute between the military and the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon erupted as Palestinian insurgency groups have tried to smuggle rockets and heavy weapons from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip. They said that despite repeated Israeli and U.S. appeals, Egypt has failed to crack down on the weapons smuggling rings that operate in Cairo, El Arish and the divided city of Rafah.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon has advocated a tough approach to the Egyptian government, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said Ya'alon and other generals want Sharon to warn the United States that Egypt's refusal to secure its eastern border could threaten regional stability and torpedo Israel's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

"The General Staff sees the flow of weapons from Egypt as a strategic danger that will eventually provide the Palestinians with everything they need to attack Israeli cities," a senior military source said. "If something is not done now, then it will get much worse and our relations with Egypt will become endangered."

On Wednesday, Israeli National Security Council director Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland was expected to discuss Egypt during a meeting with Bush administration officials in Washington. Officials said Eiland's talks were meant to focus on the government's withdrawal plan, including U.S. help to finance the resettlement of about 10,000 Israelis in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

The military's key concern, officials said, has been that the PA would obtain Katyusha surface-to-surface rockets as well as SA-7 surface-to-air missiles from Egypt. They said that in August, amid heavy U.S. pressure, Egypt blocked an effort to smuggle Katyusha rockets and man-portable surface-to-air missiles to the Gaza Strip.

Officials said Egypt has become the main source of weapons to the Palestinian Authority. They said the Palestinians chose the Sinai route after Jordan seized shipments of weapons provided largely by the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah to the West Bank.

Ya'alon has demanded that Egypt halt the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip before Israel proceeds with plans to withdraw from the area. Egypt has been training Palestinian Authority police officers and offered to send at least 200 advisers to help restore security in the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, Ya'alon's demand was supported by Israel Security Agency director Avi Dichter. Dichter told the Cabinet that the eight-kilometer-long Philadelphi corridor between Egypt and the Gaza Strip could become a major smuggling route for the PA and insurgency groups. He warned that the Palestinians could receive heavy weapons from Egypt following an Israeli withdrawal.

Sharon has agreed with the military assessment, but aides said he has sought to avoid a crisis with Egypt. Cabinet sources quoted Sharon as saying that Egypt has demonstrated some effort to stop smuggling, but that much more must be done.

Officials said Egypt has also failed to stop the smuggling of components for the Kassam-class short-range missile to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. They said that in July, a shipment of standard fuzes was smuggled from the Sinai Peninsula to Rafah in a move that enhanced the lethality of the missiles.

"The Egyptians are not doing their best to stop smuggling of weapons from Egypt," Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's political-military bureau, said. "But as far as I can tell the Egyptians are improving their effort. I wouldn't be surprised if they take military measures. The question is will this be sufficient."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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