Tuesday, October 19, 2004

LONDON - A provision in the U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt moved into sharp focus last week, putting senior Egyptian and Israeli officials at loggerheads over each country’s security responsibilities in the Sinai Peninsula after three terrorist bombs killed 34 persons, including 13 Israelis celebrating a Jewish holiday, on Egypt’s side of the border.

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Egypt was “partially responsible” for the Oct. 7 attacks because of its long-term laxity, although he acknowledged that the violence was damaging to Egypt’s tourism trade.

In a Washington Times interview, Mr. Steinitz went so far as to accuse Egypt of deliberately failing to prevent rampant arms and explosives smuggling in the past four years and suggested that Egypt was trying to destabilize Israel and sap its strength by encouraging Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed.

Osama El-Baz, chief adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, rejected the charges as “malicious, bad-intentioned and false,” but said the accusations would not deflect Egypt from its commitment to combat terrorism.

Cairo authorities initially had tried to dismiss the bombings as explosions of cooking-gas canisters.

In cautious language, Mr. El-Baz offered to improve Egyptian-Israeli links for preventing terrorism.

“We believe we can improve things through some increased cooperation in certain areas,” he said.

The long-serving Egyptian adviser was quoted in the daily London Telegraph as saying, “Had we been able to have the army in Area C [where the three bombing occurred], it would have been easier for us to control entry to the area.”

Treaty troubles?

Under the 1979 treaty, the first between Israel and any Arab state, Egypt can deploy only lightly armed police in the strip of the Sinai Peninsula nearest the Israeli border called Zone C.

The three bomb attacks also injured scores of Israelis at the Taba Hilton hotel and two beachside snorkeling resorts near Israel’s southern border.

Mr. El-Baz, who was involved in negotiating the 1979 treaty as President Anwar Sadat’s chief foreign policy adviser, was quoted in Egypt’s authoritative Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper as saying that the Mubarak government wants to upgrade its security presence in the zone and the level of armament carried by forces deployed there without having to amend the 1979 treaty.

Mr. El-Baz also has orchestrated Egypt’s complex relationship with Israel and its Arab neighbors, sometimes phoning Israeli military chiefs and advisers to exchange information and express concerns.

However, Mr. Steinitz, the Knesset official, rejected any changes to the demilitarized zone.

Israel has pointed out that the 1979 treaty set no limit on the number of Egyptian police in the border zone and that the patrols are allowed to carry assault rifles and wear body armor. Egypt may use only “light boats, lightly armed,” to patrol the coastline near the vacation resorts frequented by many Israelis, the treaty’s provisions also stipulate.

The Taba Hilton hotel is close to Israel’s border just south of the Israeli port and vacation city of Eilat. Even after Israel withdrew from the rest of Sinai in 1980, it hung on to this area amid a dispute over old maps, until Egypt won an international arbitration.

Now the city lies in Zone C, an Egyptian area 12 to 25 miles wide that is monitored by American troops who are part of a multinational peacekeeping and observer force.

In return for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, captured in the 1967 war, Egypt agreed to restrict its forces’ deployment in Sinai. Israel saw the restrictions as vital in preventing an Egyptian surprise attack and in reducing the need for extensive Israeli forces along the nation’s long southern borders.

The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv reported this week that the Israeli government had decided to allow a strengthening of Egyptian forces in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, but there has been no official word on the matter.

Mr. Steinitz told The Washington Times that he opposes any strengthening of the Egyptian military presence in Sinai.

“Any [Egyptian] commando unit deployed near the Negev [Desert], even if armed with rifles only, is a unit that would endanger Israeli Defense Force bases in case of war,” he said.

Mr. Steinitz argues that the Egyptians could increase or make better use of their police presence, rather than bring in soldiers and heavier weapons, to prevent terrorist attacks.

“Our logic in withdrawing from Sinai [under the peace treaty] was in exchange for peace and demilitarization,” he said. “It would be highly irresponsible for us to say, ‘Now we have a terror problem [in Sinai]; let’s bring in more Egyptian forces there.’”

Mr. Steinitz said Egypt already has “significant forces” stationed in the area east of the Suez Canal and in central Sinai and that any additional Egyptian troop strength would oblige Israel to bolster its own forces along its southern borders, which it can ill afford.

Israel, the chairman noted, relies on a small standing army and calling up its large reserves for border strengthening has serious economic consequences for Israel’s hard-pressed economy and populace.

Smuggling cited

Mr. Steinitz said Egypt has the ability to prevent arms smuggling, and doing so could have prevented the terrorist bombings in Sinai.

“For four years, the Sinai has been almost a haven for arms smuggling, under the Egyptian assumption that all the explosives and weapons are going into Israel” or the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.

Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, told Mr. Steinitz’s committee that last year, 5,000 tons of weapons, including 330 anti-tank launchers and thousands of anti-tank rockets and mortars, were smuggled from Sinai into the densely populated Gaza Strip or via the Negev Desert to the southern West Bank, a distance of about 30 miles.

Some of that weaponry was Egyptian-made, Mr. Steinitz said, and most of it arrived by ship at Egyptian ports. Israel had intercepted only a fraction of these arms, by uncovering tunnels into the Gaza Strip or capturing smugglers inside the Negev Desert, he added.

Israel regularly announces that it has found and destroyed tunnels dug from Egyptian soil that emerge into buildings inside the Gaza Strip. It says Egyptian authorities turn a blind eye to the lucrative trade in rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles and rocket parts.

“Unfortunately, I cannot avoid saying that the real Egyptian policy till now has been to let the Palestinians and the Israelis bleed together,” the chairman said.

Mr. Steinitz said the Egyptians have a long-term strategy of stoking the four-year intifada that has left thousands dead to “shift the balance of power in favor of Egypt.” The Egyptian approach to combating arms smuggling, he said, is in stark contrast to Jordan’s successful interdiction.

“The Jordanians, since we asked them four years ago, have been extremely efficient and very serious. They dismantled the [arms-smuggling] networks well inside Jordan. Hardly anything gets in that way.

“When there was an internal terrorist wave in Cairo and the Nile area 10 years ago, the Egyptians were extremely efficient in making arrests, dismantling terror networks, etcetera.

“Yet till last week in the Sinai, despite all our pleading, they’d only arrested a few dozen people,” Mr. Steinitz said.

In response, Mr. El-Baz pointed out that Egyptian intelligence has not determined responsibility for the Sinai bombings. He said Egypt would not tolerate terrorism, but that solving the Palestinian crisis would reduce the problem.

He denied that Egypt surreptitiously helps arms smuggling to the Palestinians, whether through the Gaza tunnels or via the Negev Desert to the West Bank.

Egypt, he said, would have more influence with the Palestinians and could ensure much less smuggling if Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Cairo is planning to take a role in training Palestinian police and security services in the Gaza Strip.

Uneasy friendship

In general, Israel seeks to downplay any security disagreements with Egypt. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is relying on the Egyptians to help maintain a semblance of order in the Gaza Strip once Israel withdraws its troops and the 7,500 Israeli settlers from there.

A Knesset vote on the Sharon plan is scheduled for November, and Mr. Sharon knows some lawmakers will vote for his plan only if Egypt is seen to be a reliable partner.

Cairo also is seeking some political influence in the Gaza Strip, which it occupied and controlled from 1948 to the 1967 Middle East war.

The disagreement goes deeper than simple security issues.

The Egyptians are frustrated that Israel has not found some way of reaching accommodation with the Palestinians, because, if this were achieved, it would greatly enhance Egypt’s status and its clout in the Arab world.

The Israelis are disappointed that after 25 years, they still have a “cold peace” with Egypt, meaning that the 1979 treaty has not delivered significantly more trade and tourism between the two neighbors.

Few Egyptians go to Israel. Even before the recent bombings, Israelis who have been enjoying the Sinai beaches were loath to visit Cairo or venture up the Nile for fear of Egyptian hostility.

Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahri, orchestrated the Islamist terror campaign in Egypt during the 1990s.

The way Egypt handled the immediate aftermath of this month’s bombings in Sinai increased Israeli irritation. Israeli newspapers reported extensively about how ambulances from Eilat were blocked at the border, how the Egyptians provided scant rescue and hospital facilities and how Egyptian border police fired into the air to prevent panic-stricken Israelis from fleeing back across the border into Israel.

In Egypt, the press carried accusations that the explosions could have been the work of Israel’s secret services. Conspiracy theorists speculated that Israel killed its own citizens in order to divert attention from its military operations in the Gaza Strip or for a host of other, often contradictory reasons.

A Western analyst with tongue in cheek offered his own conspiracy theory: “Perhaps al Qaeda did the bombings to sow more seeds of animosity between Israel and Egypt. After all, al Qaeda hates them both.”

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