YAAKOV KATZ, HERB KEINON and HILARY LEILA KRIEGER , THE JERUSALEM POST Dec.
Israel is sending video tapes showing Egyptian policemen assisting Palestinian terrorists along the Egypt-Gaza border to the United States Congress as part of an effort to influence the legislative body into clamping pressure on Cairo to stop weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
The video footage - which shows Egyptian security forces assisting Hamas terrorists cross illegally into Gaza - is being transferred to Congress through diplomatic channels and is intended for senior congressmen and senators who can have an effect on the House foreign aid appropriations process. Israel believes this can be an effective way of pressuring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak into clamping down on Hamas smuggling activities.
The House and Senate agreed late Sunday on a 2008 foreign aid bill that would hold back $100 million in military aid for Egypt, out of a $1.3 billion allocation, unless US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certifies that concerns about smuggling weapons into Gaza and human rights abuses have been addressed. It is the first time that Egyptian military aid, supplied since the Camp David Accords, would potentially be restricted.
However, the newly agreed bill weakens language in an earlier House bill, which would have held back $200m. without certification. In addition, it added a provision allowing the restriction to be waived - and the aid to flow as usual - if Rice deems that holding back the aid to Egypt would endanger US national security interests.
Ideally, Israel would hope to see as much as $1b. in US aid being conditioned on a far more robust Egyptian antiterrorism effort at the Gaza border, but it recognizes that this is highly improbable.
Officials in Washington could not confirm that the Israeli videotapes had been received, but assessments were that damning video footage of Egyptian Border Police involvement in the Gaza smuggling industry would badly damage Egypt's already tarnished image. That, however, might not be enough to force any change in aid arrangements, which face opposition by Egypt, a key US ally and some congressmen who worry reducing aid will damage the strategic US-Egypt-Israel relationship, among other concerns.
A delegation of American military engineers recently toured the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi Corridor and was shown a number of tunnels that the Egyptians tried to portray as being too small to smuggle weapons through. The delegation was not convinced by the Egyptians and demanded that Cairo take more decisive action against the smuggling industry.
According to recent assessments, since Hamas's takeover of Gaza in June, the terrorist group has smuggled into Gaza 100 tons of explosives, millions of bullets, hundreds of antitank missiles and even a small number of Katyusha rockets.
The new version of the 2008 foreign aid bill is likely to be approved by Congress in the coming days. However, US President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the measure for various reasons, including its language on familyplanning. The bill also contains $2.4b. in military aid to Israel and several sources of funds for Palestinians, including money for economic assistance and UNWRA. Congress showed some willingness to buck the administration's request of funds for the Palestinian Authority, reducing a $150m. direct funding request to $100m., according to Congressional staff.
If Bush vetoes the bill, funding would presumably be maintained at 2007 levels for the time being. In that case, any restriction on Egyptian military aid would be a moot point in the immediate future.
Israel, according to sources familiar with Israeli efforts to get Egypt to take more action along the border, has "definitely become more aggressive" on the issue in recent weeks.
Israeli government officials explained that stepped-up Israeli action vis-a-vis the Americans on the smuggling issue coincides with a feeling in Jerusalem that Egypt is trying to "get closer" to Hamas.
The assessment in Jerusalem is that this stems from the proximity of Hamas to Egypt and from the fact that Hamas, rather than losing its grip on Gaza, is actually consolidating its control. Egypt sees it as in its interest, according to this thinking, to ensure smooth relations with Hamas, something an active fight against arms smuggling could do.
Likewise, the official said, Egypt is interested in seeing Hamas come back under the Palestinian Authority umbrella, and is playing a middleman role in trying to bring this about. An active campaign against the smuggling could interfere with that ability.
"The Egyptians don't want to push too hard against Hamas, so they don't start pushing back," one official said.
The official said that Egypt "does not want to get its hands too dirty" andwould rather the Palestinians themselves deal with the arms-smuggling issue. One reason Cairo is interested in Hamas' re-incorporation into the PA is the belief that this could lower the level of violence. According to this thinking, a lower level of violence will lead to less arms smuggling, and as a result less will be asked of Egypt.
Israel, by contrast, has made plain to PA President Mahmoud Abbas that the new Annapolis diplomatic process will be terminated if internal Palestinian negotiations on reincorporating Hamas into the PA are even attempted, much less concluded.
Last week, Israel filed an official complaint with Cairo after Egypt unilaterally opened the Rafah Crossing and allowed Palestinians who claimed to be traveling to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage to leave the Gaza Strip.
Israel has received intelligence indicating that among the 1,700 pilgrims are a significant number of Palestinian terrorists who apparently traveled to Iran and Lebanon for training. In recent years, hundreds of Hamas terrorists have traveled abroad to Iran and Lebanon for military training.
In response to the increasing number of violations, the Foreign Ministry filed a harsh complaint with Cairo and senior defense officials, including Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry Diplomatic-Security Branch, were scheduled to travel to Egypt for talks about the recent events.
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