Egypt has purchased advanced tunnel-detection systems at a cost of millions of dollars that it plans to use to locate weapons-smuggling tunnels being dug along the Philadelphi Corridor, a top Egyptian official told The Jerusalem Post. This comes two days ahead of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's planned visit to Sharm e-Sheikh for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.
The decision to purchase the tunnel-detection system, the official said, was made not due to Israeli pressure on Egypt that it crack down on Hamas's smuggling of weapons and explosives into the Gaza Strip, but because it was a matter of national security importance for Cairo. He said the systems were purchased from an American company with money Egypt received in foreign military aid from the US.
"It is in our interest to stop the smuggling," the senior Egyptian official said. "We have no interest in seeing a radical Muslim group, with ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, rise up along our border."
The official rejected accusations that Egypt was not doing enough to stop the smuggling of weapons and was assisting Hamas terrorists in infiltrating into Israel. The official was referring to a report in the Post last week that said Israel had transferred tapes - showing Egyptian soldiers assisting Hamas - to the US in order to push Congress to withhold part of the foreign aid it gives to Egypt.
"This harms relations between Israel and Egypt and it does the opposite of what we would like to do, which is to strengthen relations," the Egyptian official said.
According to the official, a US team of engineers recently visited the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi Corridor and wrote a report concluding that if Israel wanted Egypt to stand a chance at stopping the smuggling, it needed to allow an increase in the number of Egyptian troops from 750 to 1,500. Israel has refused to allow an increase since it would require that changes be made to the peace treaty with Egypt.
"We have a very small number of soldiers along the border and we are trying to do everything we can with them to stop the smuggling," the Egyptian official said. "At all times, a third are training, a third are resting and a third are on duty. That amounts to only some 200 soldiers."
According to figures compiled by the IDF, smugglers have brought 20,000 rifles, 6,000 antitank missiles and more than 100 tons of explosives into the Gaza strip since last summer.
Israel had exaggerated the figures, the Egyptian official said.
"The tunnel has a 120-centimeter diameter," he said. "To get those quantities into Gaza you would need to have a tunnel every 10 meters."
Barak will visit Sharm e-Sheikh on Wednesday for talks with Mubarak, Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Egyptian Defense Minister Muhammad Tantawi.
Barak's trip was coordinated by Egyptian Counsel-General to Israel Sameh Nabil. A former emissary to Sudan, Nabil has been stationed in Tel Aviv for three months and has taken the lead position in coordinating with the Israeli diplomatic and defense echelon on the weapons smuggling issue.
Meanwhile, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz on Monday charged that the Foreign Ministry's decision to prevent the US Congress from watching the video footage was a "major mistake."
"As published in The Jerusalem Post [last week], Israel could have scored a major victory with the US Congress, and [could have] persuaded them that Egypt is incapable of defending the Gaza border," he told Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "But the Foreign Ministry intervened with no suitable explanation."
In response, Livni said, "Some things are done on stage, some are done in Congress and some other things are done behind the scenes. Every move needs to be calculated. To take an extreme scenario, would you sever relations with Egypt over weapons smuggling?"
Livni told the committee about the Foreign Ministry's activities during the last half of 2007.
"Egypt played a positive role in Annapolis," she said. "But this does not negate the fact that their performance on the Gaza border is awful and problematic. The weapons smuggling lowers the chances that pragmatic factions in Gaza and the West Bank will regain control."