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The World

U.S., Egypt at odds on Gaza border curbs

June 23, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As they try to work out a joint approach to a Gaza Strip controlled by the militant group Hamas, the United States and Egypt already are parting ways on the key issue of how to control the Palestinian territory's dangerous southwestern border.

U.S. officials are urging Egypt to step up its efforts to halt the illegal flow of militants, arms and cash across its border into Gaza, warning that the seaside strip could become a lawless haven for militants affiliated with such groups as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

But Cairo insists that the threat is greatly exaggerated, and dismisses American worries that Gaza could ever become a terrorist magnet, as Afghanistan was under Taliban rule.

"The truth of the matter is that the problem is not nearly as large as the [U.S.] allegations imply, and we're doing quite a bit already," Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.

Fahmy said worries about the infiltration of militants were "nonsense" because border checkpoints were carefully manned, and that the illegal tunnels that lace the border area were not large enough to accommodate a sizable flow of militants.

The border control issue has long been sensitive. For years, Israel has complained that Egypt has not done enough to halt smuggling that has been helping to finance and arm Hamas. Now, however, the issue has gained new importance, as Israel, the United States and European allies try to isolate Hamas and build up the more moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose rump government controls the West Bank.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is playing host to a meeting in Cairo on Monday of Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian Authority officials to discuss how they will deal with the new order that emerged last week when Hamas forces routed the more secular Fatah movement in Gaza.

American and Israeli officials agree that Egypt has been stepping up its efforts in recent days to halt the traffic. A senior Bush administration official said that the Egyptians "are making more of an effort, and do perceive a definitely increased risk" at the border since the ouster of the Fatah forces.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the administration's call for Cairo to increase its efforts was "not by way of criticism," noting that the Israelis were not able to completely halt smuggling when they controlled the border.

Regardless, the official said, Egypt "needs to do more." David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, will again raise the issue with Egyptian officials in the next few days as he visits the region, the senior administration official said.

An Israeli official said the Egyptians have been doing more, especially when they have been given leads on where smuggling has been taking place. Still, the official said, the problem continues.

"They are doing some, but they should be doing more," said the official, who also declined to be identified.

Israeli officials this month floated the idea of having a United Nations contingent help watch the border, but the idea stalled when it became clear that few if any countries would be willing to take on the difficult task.

Meanwhile, in a further sign of American concern, the House early Friday adopted a foreign aid bill that would cut $200 million of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt unless it halts smuggling at the Gaza border and curbs human rights abuses.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the subcommittee that controls foreign aid spending, said the language was "a reminder to a good friend that there are some real and grave concerns in Congress."

A top U.S. worry is that the 140-square-mile area of Gaza could provide Iran with a foothold in the region. U.S. officials have long complained that Tehran has provided arms and cash for Hamas, and offered military training outside Gaza for members of the Palestinian Islamic group.

Matthew Levitt, a senior intelligence official at the Treasury Department until earlier this year, said Iran might be tempted to send personnel to Gaza because of Tehran's current regional rivalry with the United States. At the same time, he said, foreign Islamic militants would be drawn to the territory because it is a lawless zone near the heart of militant Islam's clash with the West.

"This is an important location for them, close to the holy city of Jerusalem and on the border of two of the greatest enemies of Al Qaeda, Israel and Egypt," said Levitt, who is now director of the terrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Levitt said that members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim Lebanese militia, had been reported circulating in Gaza.

He also said that Hamas' ability to oust its Fatah rivals from Gaza was "very largely a result of Iran's largess," one reason U.S. officials are now "absolutely focused on the need to contain the radical elements in Gaza."

Egyptian officials insist that most of the smuggling is via the Mediterranean, which is patrolled by the Israelis.

They contend that searching out the dozens of smuggling tunnels is an overwhelming job, especially because they are limited to fewer than 1,000 police and soldiers under an international pact that demilitarizes the area.

Ambassador Fahmy took strong exception to the House foreign aid bill, saying that any military aid program must be "sustainable and regular," rather than freighted with conditions.

"It's shortsighted and leaves a very bad reflection on how America treats its friends -- very few of whom actually remain," Fahmy said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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