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Thursday, June 21, 2007

When Congress says "jump," Egypt asks "how high"

It's been a long time coming but the United States Congress has finally called the government of Egypt - the third largest recipient of US foreign aid - to order. The US House of Representatives is going to pass the 2008 foreign aid appropriations bill on Thursday, and for the first time part of Egypt's share is going to be conditioned on its behavior in areas that are of concern to the United States. It's about time!
The 2008 House legislation requires the US Secretary of State to certify that Egypt is addressing arms smuggling into Gaza, as well as some human rights abuses, before $200 million of a total of $1.3 billion in military aid is given to Egypt. The rest of the aid package to the Arab power has no such restrictions, but the move is seen as a sign of growing American dissatisfaction with Egypt and loosening in the relationship between the two countries.

The restriction was proposed before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, which has led to finger-pointing at Egypt for not doing enough to limit the flow of arms into the coastal strip, but the development has lent the measure more urgency. The bill needs to go through the Senate and then be signed by the president, but the increasing clamor over the tunnel issue means the funding restriction is more likely to stand throughout the legislating process.


"I don't think it's a helpful step," one Egyptian diplomat told The Jerusalem Post, criticizing "the assumption that the assistance package is somehow a gift to Egypt without realizing that it benefits both countries." Congress is trying to portray it as friendly advice to a key ally, albeit one that hasn't behaved exactly as the US would like.

"While Egypt is a friend and important ally in the war on terror there are concerns about the independence of the judiciary in Egypt, police abuses, and the growing smuggling operation of arms and weapons from Egypt into Gaza," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), chairwoman of the foreign appropriations subcommittee. "This language is a reminder to a good friend that there are some very real and grave concerns in Congress." But critics of Egypt say that the country is no longer a good friend, with the lack of sufficient action on the tunnels as only the latest example. Other warn that denying funds could further fray relations with a key ally in the Arab world.

Though economic aid to Egypt has long faced restrictions this is the first time that military aid - termed by analysts a "sacrosanct" part of the US-Egypt relationship since the Camp David Accords - has been touched.

"There's been growing frustration with Egypt in Washington and growing frustration with Washington in Egypt. It seems inevitable that it would work its way into legislation," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Both countries feel horribly taken advantage of the other." The upshot, he said, is a reevaluation of the billions in aid America sends to Cairo each year.

There are those on Capitol Hill that might have been inclined to fight the $200 million restriction, but they will find it difficult to do so with the smuggling issue as a part of the legislation, according to one observer who tracks the issue.

"It's outrageous that they're not doing more," said the observer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It makes it really hard for anyone to oppose" the $200 million cutoff.

The Egyptian diplomat defended his country's action on the tunnel issue, however. "We do more than we would like to advertise," he said, pointing out that Israel wasn't able to fully stop the tunnel smuggling even when it occupied Gaza. "Already Egypt is making its best effort and we'll continue to do that."

Israel offers a different assessment. Though the Shin Bet has seen some improvement in Egyptian efforts recently, Israel says there has been a huge increase in the flow of weapons and the like to Gaza since it pulled out. Israeli security officials point, for instance, to a jump from six tons of explosives smuggling into Gaza in 2005 to the 30 tons of explosives smuggled in 2006.

Olmert brought up the issue during his talks in Washington this week, with Israeli officials saying they would like to see the US do more to pressure Egypt on this point.

The State Department press office could offer no information on the House proposal Wednesday, but earlier State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack did say of the Egyptians that, "They understand that there's more to do in that regard in stopping any smuggling that goes on between Egypt and the Gaza Strip." Alterman said, I don't think the State Department would certify the improvements necessary for aid as of now, unless there's a change, then that money would not go to Egypt this year.
Tonight, the new restriction on aid to Egypt has already had its effect: The Egyptians agreed to take in more than 100 'Palestinians' who were stranded at the Erez crossing point trying to escape from Gaza. They were transported by the IDF through the Negev desert in the dead of night from Erez to Kerem Shalom, another, more southern crossing point, from which they were transferred (probably through Rafah) to Egypt. Thirty-two of them had sufficient connections to terrorism that Israel said that there was no way they would be permitted to be in Israel for any period of time. The Egyptians agreed to take them.
The Palestinians are being picked up from Erez Crossing, taken on buses to Kerem Shalom Crossing, and then dispatched to Egypt.

30 members of the group are women, while 32 of the Palestinians crossing into Egypt will not be allowed back through Israeli borders because of various degrees of involvement in past terror attacks.

The overnight operation was approved by the government and coordinated with Egypt.

IDF forces added that the Palestinians were being thoroughly screened and accompanied by Israeli security forces throughout their route into Egypt.
Maybe this will be a trend....


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