Israel-Egypt border.
Israel-Egypt border. Photo by Moti Milrod
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An Egyptian court Monday sentenced two Israeli Arabs and a Ukrainian to life imprisonment for smuggling weapons from Israel through the Taba border crossing.

The Ukrainian, Eduard Bablovich, and a Kafr Kara resident, Muad Zahalka, were sentenced at the Ismailia criminal court after being held in custody since October last year. The third defendant, Mamoun abdel Fatah Elalimi, who is currently in Israel, was convicted in absentia. In addition to the prison sentence, the court imposed a 63,000 Egyptian pound fine on the defendants.

According to Egyptian media reports, Zahalka, a tourist guide from the Eilat area, was arrested at the Taba crossing in October, on his way into Egypt, after a wooden box he was carrying was found to contain a shotgun and ammunition.

The prosecution said Zahalka admitted during his police interrogation that Elalimi had asked him to hand over the box to Bablovich, a tourism operator from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

In his defense, Zahalka claimed that he agreed to transfer the box, at the request of the two other defendants who were his business partners at the time, without knowing what it contained.

The prosecution also claimed that the three tried to exploit their good name in Sinai. However, it did not specify a motive for the offense, nor did it say whether the shipment was to serve criminal or terrorist purposes.

Zahalka had allegedly collected the box in Bethlehem. According to an Israeli official, the Palestinian Authority conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the case and found that Zahalka was not involved. The Palestinian report was presented to the Egyptian court, the Israeli official said, but it refused to take it into account.

Zahalka's relatives in Israel refused to speak to the media but a family friend said they were shocked at the news. His acquaintances said he is an innocent man who has no criminal record and no bearing on criminal activity, and that he got on the wrong side of the law due to his naivety.

Prior to the conviction, Zahalka's family tried to pull political and diplomatic strings. They contacted deputy minister Ayoob Kara (Likud ) and MK Israel Hasson (Kadima ), who have contacts in the Egyptian intelligence service, and were instrumental in last October's release of Ilan Grapel, an American-Israeli who had been arrested in Egypt a few months beforehand on espionage charges.