- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

CAIRO — Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has pledged to help make the Gaza Strip the foundation of a Palestinian state “in every sense” and urged other countries to join Cairo in the push for Middle East peace.

“If we want Gaza to be the basis for a new Palestinian state long term, we have to provide [the residents] with homes and jobs, with security,” Mr. Nazif told The Washington Times.

“A lot of effort has to go into rebuilding the infrastructure, not just in the political but in the economic sense.”

Mr. Nazif said Cairo will make sure that Gaza has access to the outside world through Egyptian seaports and airports “to prevent the strip of territory being a prison” for its residents.

Egypt, which holds a presidential election tomorrow, also will provide technical support to develop the banking structure, the prime minister said Sunday during an interview at the high-rise office he maintains in a booming technology zone on the edge of the capital.

Egypt will use its knowledge of the Gaza Strip, which was once administered by Cairo, to develop economic assistance, he added. At the same time, it will press the Palestinians “to ensure that the Israelis don’t see [Gaza] as a place for attacking them.”

“Gaza has to be the beginning of a real state in every sense,” Mr. Nazif said.

Other nations should support Egypt’s efforts in the region, said the prime minister, 52, who has been credited with bringing a more dynamic style to Egypt’s government since his appointment by President Hosni Mubarak last year.

“We have been actively seeking the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the past year and a half. We were almost working alone,” he said.

“It culminated in the Sharm el Sheik meeting [between Israeli and Palestinian leaders], which had a calming-down role. … We have been able to build the bridges that were required.”

But now, Mr. Nazif said, “this will have to be followed by others to support and sustain these political gains.”

Egypt and Israel have agreed that Israel will withdraw its troops from the Gaza-Egypt border — to be replaced by 750 Egyptian troops charged with preventing arms smuggling into Gaza.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said yesterday that the Egyptians would begin taking up positions along the border in the coming days.

The forces are to patrol along a volatile corridor on the Gaza side of the border, where Israeli-Palestinian fighting has been particularly intense because of the arms smuggling.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he and the Israelis remain at odds over other details of the border arrangement, but he hoped to conclude a deal “very soon.”

The crossing into Egypt is the Gazans’ most important link to the outside world. The Palestinians say free passage to Egypt will be essential for reviving the territory’s economy after a 38-year occupation. But Israel wants to maintain some control over the border, fearing weapons could be smuggled into Gaza.

Mr. Nazif dismissed speculation that Egypt could become involved in a power struggle in Gaza between the Palestinian Authority and the hard-line Hamas movement, which some Egyptian journalists have idolized.

“I believe that if you ask the average Egyptian today he would support the moderate [Palestinian] factions,” the prime minister said.

“You can’t leave any faction out. It is important that the Palestinian security forces are organized and are not some kind of militia. The Palestinians understand that. We should not underestimate them.”

Egyptian security forces, meanwhile, have concluded an investigation into the July 22 bombings at Sharm el Sheik resort, which killed 56 persons, and have excluded outside involvement in the attack.

“We know who did it, and that takes us a long way to knowing how to prevent it happening again,” Mr. Nazif said.

Tourism to Egypt’s constellation of dazzling Red Sea and Mediterranean resorts will continue to expand notwithstanding sporadic terrorist attacks, he predicted.

Mr. Nazif said Mr. Mubarak’s pledge to achieve 4.5 million jobs over the next six years is feasible given Egypt’s oil and gas resources, tourist attractions and economic reforms to encourage investment by cutting taxation and customs duties.

“We have computed that 1 million tourists creates 200,000 jobs a year. We are attracting 1 million more tourists a year. We have started to create a business environment in Egypt [that is] supportive of investment,” he said.

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