- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2008

TEL AVIV — A top defense official yesterday said Israel wants to completely sever ties with the Gaza Strip, and called on Egypt to take responsibility after it allowed tens of thousands of Gazans to surge over its border.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Cairo, rather than Jerusalem, should now take responsibility for providing water, electricity and food supplies to the coastal strip.

“We need to understand that when Gaza is open on the other side, we are no longer responsible for it,” Mr. Vilnai told Israel Army radio. “So we want to disconnect from it.”

Palestinians poured across the border for a second day yesterday, stocking up on food, fuel and other commodities that had been running out in Gaza since Israel tightened its blockade last week in response to mounting rocket attacks.

Egyptian police and border guards made limited attempts to restore control of the frontier, patrolling access roads with sniffer dogs and banging batons on the hoods of cars to stop them from traveling deeper into Egypt, the Associated Press reported. Some Palestinians were urged to begin making their way back to Gaza with the goods they had purchased.

Analysts said the border chaos was creating tension between Israel and Egypt. Israel, worried that Gaza’s Hamas rulers will smuggle weapons and money into Gaza while exporting militants to the Sinai Peninsula, is reportedly accusing the Egyptians of allowing the border chaos to spiral out of control.

Egypt, according to Israel television Channel 1 news, has in turn blamed the chaos on Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, and officials in Cairo rejected the notion they were now responsible for Gaza.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki was quoted as saying Egypt had not been approached by Israel about any change in the status of Gaza and that “the border will go back as normal.”

Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of an online journal about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called Bitterlemons.org, said Egypt was unlikely to “let Israel off the hook. They’re perfectly willing to see Israel at wit’s end over Hamas.”

“At the broader strategic level, we can say that Hamas in Gaza has become a major source of tension between Israel and Egypt, and this is a major problem because it has ramifications that go far beyond Gaza,” Mr. Alpher said.

The analyst said that Israel had offered to hand control of Gaza to Egypt several times in the past, but had always been rebuffed.

An Israeli foreign ministry official tried to play down suggestions of tension with Egypt, and declined to comment on Mr. Vilnai’s remarks.

But there were clear signs of Israel’s unease over the open border and its security implications: Israeli security officials warned Israeli tourists vacationing in Sinai Desert resorts that the Gaza breach could unleash Palestinian militants looking to kidnap Israelis. The same concern prompted Israel to close off civilian traffic on a highway that hugs its border with Egypt.

On the first day of the breach, Israel’s foreign ministry called on Egypt to honor signed agreements, and reassert control over the border. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said the statement referred to the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, which calls on Egypt to exercise its sovereignty along the border region.

“They have a responsibility that the border will operate in an orderly fashion,” Mr. Mekel said.

The crisis has highlighted the murky legal questions regarding sovereignty in Gaza since Israel withdrew its troops from the coastal strip in 2005.

Israel initially said the “disengagement” from Gaza absolved it of responsibility for the territory. The Palestinians countered that Israel has not ended its occupation of Gaza because it still controls its maritime frontier, its airspace and its major crossing points.

Most countries agree with the Palestinians that Israel bears legal responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Mr. Mekel said Israel will continue to keep its borders with Gaza closed, and will reopen crossing points only on an “ad hoc” basis for emergency humanitarian supplies.

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