Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday in an attempt to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to jumpstart peace talks between Israel and the Fatah government that clings to power in the West Bank.
Egypt’s move, lauded by Washington, is also an attempt to isolate the violent Hamas terrorist organization, one week after its takeover of the Gaza Strip. This gives the appearance that Egypt is a leading voice of moderation in the region and a pivotal U.S. ally in the war against radical Islam in the region.
But Egypt is largely to blame for the current Gaza crisis, the arming of Hamas and the deaths of hundreds of people, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
For years, Cairo has turned a blind eye to Hamas’ weapon smuggling activities on the Gaza-Sinai border in an area known as the Philadelphi Corridor. Hamas has amassed a deadly arsenal by importing copious amounts of weapons through tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza.
Cairo yawned when this arsenal spilled the blood of hundreds of Israelis in recent years. This was Egypt’s conception of “Cold Peace” with Israel. Mubarak lent half-hearted rhetorical support to Arab-Israeli peace while allowing Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian weapons to travel underground to terrorists. Egypt continued to take aid from the United States (more than $28 billion over three decades) while simultaneously and indirectly inflicting pain upon Israel.
Now, Mubarak is suddenly alarmed by the fact that Hamas used these weapons to kill dozens of Palestinians, that the region is ablaze and that a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamist proto-state now sits on its border.
Over the last decade, Israel has found and destroyed dozens of tunnels that originated in Egypt and led right into Gaza. Israel’s Engineer Corps destroyed them with explosives or filled them with cement. But Gaza’s tunnels are built as fast as they are found, thanks to financing from the mullahs of Iran.
According to one estimate, Gazans smuggled no less than 30 tons of explosives from Egypt in 2006. The goods typically include automatic rifles, mines, armor-piercing weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and even the explosives used in suicide belts. Also coming through are the raw materials necessary to build the increasingly accurate Qassam rockets that pummel the southern Israeli town of Sderot on a daily basis.
The interrogation of one militant in 2003 revealed to Israeli intelligence that anti-aircraft missiles had been smuggled through these tunnels to counter Israeli attack helicopters, or even to target commercial airliners. Recently, Israeli officials have expressed concerns that long-range missiles may have made their way to Gaza, too.
Israel repeatedly pleaded with their “peace partner,” Egypt, to do more to stop the smuggling in recent years. Cairo responded with complaints that it needed more policemen to deploy along the border. This response was curious, coming from a police state.
True, Egyptian policemen occasionally destroyed tunnels. But, their efforts were well shy of rigorous. According to Israeli officials, in some cases, Egyptian police received “bribes or other incentives for keeping the tunnels open.” When Israel destroyed tunnels with explosives, they witnessed smoke and debris clouds coming out of tunnel entrances in areas that were well within the patrol areas of Egypt’s border guards.
Cairo traditionally dismissed these allegations as “old and silly” but now appears to be properly alarmed. Egypt heightened its alert level along the Philadelphi corridor in the wake of the Hamas victory. Mubarak reportedly upped the number of police on the border to 750.
Egypt could take further measures, in light of a U.S. House of Representatives vote on Friday to withhold $200 million in military aid until Cairo shows it is serious about stopping the smuggling.
Regardless of how many Egyptian police are now deployed to the border, there can be no masking the fact that Egypt was responsible, in part, for the arming of Hamas. It was therefore responsible, in part, for the Hamas takeover in Gaza.
Mubarak’s peace summit in Sharm el-Sheikh is a fig leaf, designed to obscure the fact that he allowed Hamas to arm.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center. He is author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.