- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

JERUSALEM — Egypt, which has been trying for years like a good neighbor to stop the Israelis and Palestinians next door from squabbling, is upset by the sudden prospect of becoming part of the dispute.

President Hosni Mubarak, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro over the weekend, sharply rejected the possibility that Egypt would assume any responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip after Israel completes its planned withdrawal.

“It’s a trap, because we would find ourselves in a situation of confrontation with the Palestinians,” he said. “And if there were problems, we could even find ourselves in conflict with the Israelis.”

Israel has not asked Egypt to send forces into the Gaza Strip itself but expects it to stop arms smuggling into the strip from Egyptian territory and to use its influence to prevent Gaza from descending into chaos.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is expected in Cairo tomorrow as part of efforts to bring Egypt on board, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday.

The head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, is also understood to have visited Egypt in February to sound out Cairo about the consequences of an army withdrawal from the border.

Israeli military leaders, upset by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to stage a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, had assumed that he exempted from that move the “Philadelphia axis,” a narrow buffer separating Gaza from Egyptian territory.

Mr. Sharon, however, has recently indicated that he intends to withdraw from there as well in order to detach completely from the Gaza Strip.

This would leave the border open to the influx of armaments, including rockets capable of hitting Israeli cities, unless Egypt seals off its side.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner told Agence France Press there was a “misunderstanding” if Mr. Mubarak thought that Israel wanted Egypt to take over responsibility for security in Gaza.

“It is not the case at all,” he said. “If there were to be a role for Egypt it would only” be to control the Philadelphia axis.

Until now, Egypt has not managed to do that very well and Israel has put prodigious energy into uncovering tunnels dug by the Palestinians beneath the border from Egyptian territory.

Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip from 1948, when Israel was established, until the Six Day War in 1967 but did not annex the area.

The Islamic militants of Gaza also pose an ideological danger to Egypt which waged a fierce fight against its own Islamic militants little more than a decade ago.

The 25-year-old peace agreement between Israel and Egypt permits only limited Egyptian troop deployment in the Sinai Peninsula, which Gaza abuts, in order to avoid the kind of surprise attack that began the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Officials in Cairo said last week that if Israel wishes Egypt to increase security along the Gaza border it would have to accede to an increased presence of Egyptian troops in the area, which lies alongside Israel’s own border. Israel seems likely to agree.

Meanwhile, Egypt will attempt to bring about an orderly handover of the strip to the Palestinian Authority, rather than an uncoordinated Israeli withdrawal that would leave the area in chaos and Islamic militants triumphant.

“The Palestinian Authority will have to find the means needed for maintaining law and order,” Mr. Mubarak said. That is a task both Egypt and Israel would be happy to cede.

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