An Egyptian document distributed in Congress asserts that Israeli soldiers cooperate with smugglers in allowing arms and military equipment into the Gaza Strip. The document was relayed to senior Israeli officials where it has served to intensify concerns in Jerusalem about Egypt's willingness to stem the flow of weapons from its territory into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Srip.
The Egyptian document was circulated among congressmen by a group of Egyptian generals visiting Washington for meetings. The document was also given to legislators serving in the House Appropriations Committee. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), who chairs the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee was the driving force behind a freezing of $200 million worth of American aid to Egypt for reasons that included Cairo's refusal to act more forcefully to prevent smuggling. The official reason given for freezing the funds is Egypt's human rights record.
During briefings made to congressmen by the Egyptian delegation, it was argued that most of the smugglings into the Gaza Strip are carried out from the sea, not through Egyptian territory. They also maintained that Israeli soldiers collaborate with smugglers and allow them to cross into the strip. The Egyptians are also charging that Israel is exaggerating in its assessment of the amount of smuggling activity.
News of the content of the document has stirred considerable ire in Jerusalem, where the issue of smuggling and the impression that Cairo is not doing enough to stop it has raised significant concerns in recent weeks. The issue is of central importance to Israel and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee visiting Washington this week, discussed the matter with their American hosts.
In the draft of foreign aid appropriations, approved by the House Appropriations Committee chaired by David Obey (D-Wisconsin), and by Congress, $200 million out of a total aid package of $1.7 billion to Egypt are frozen. The draft proposal brought before the Senate does not note the frozen sum. The final version of the appropriations bill on foreign aid will be decided during a conference of both houses. In an effort to affect the result in its favor, Egypt is lobbying hard to convince legislators to adopt the Senate version of the bill.
Officially, Israel has not adopted a position regarding the frozen funds, and has not asked U.S. legislators to carry out any cuts in the aid provided to Egypt. However, Israel continues to argue before Congress that Egypt is not doing enough to block smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
Two weeks ago, several dozen Hamas activists and militants were allowed to cross into the Gaza Strip from Sinai, and senior Israeli officials stressed in talks with their counterparts in the U.S. government that the smuggling is not "a technical problem but a strategic threat."
Israel maintains that the Hamas militants who crossed into the strip received advanced training in sabotage and terrorist activities in other countries, and are now poised to create in Gaza an armed "terrorist state." Israeli intelligence assessments say that each month, several tons of explosives are smuggled into the Gaza Strip for the production of rockets and explosive devices.
A source in Congress told Haaretz yesterday that "Israel's message will carry significant weight in the final decision."
Barak, who met with Lowey this week and the members of her subcommittee, raised this issue during their talk.
The Americans heard a uniform complaint from the Israeli MKs visiting Washington this week, but opinions varied on the kind of pressure needed to convince Egypt to do more. MK Yuval Steinitz took a severe stand on the issue, while Meretz chairman, Yossi Beilin, asked that any pressure on Egypt should not result in a derailment of cooperation.
"Egypt is not Israel's enemy," Beilin said.
The issue of smuggling was also on the agenda of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her meeting yesterday with her Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Following the meeting Rice said that "we do need to do more."
However, the Egyptian foreign minister said that "the Egyptian government is doing its utmost to control that territory."
Egypt has told Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney in the past that it will not accept any attempt to place conditions on U.S. aid.
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