Across the Political Spectrum, Egyptian Parties Want Israel Punished

August 21, 2011 - 11:22 PM

( – As Israel grapples with its most serious diplomatic rift with Egypt in years, one of the clearest signs of the fragility of the relationship at the heart of Israeli-Arab peace efforts is the wide range of Egyptian political parties and leaders demanding that their government take a harsh line against Israel.

Joining the call are radical Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood offshoots, secular centrists, and four presidential candidates, including two who are faring well in opinion polls – former Arab League head Amr Moussa and Ayman Nour, a liberal politician on whose behalf President Bush spoke out when President Hosni Mubarak’s regime imprisoned him as a dissident in 2007.

This cross-section of the Egyptian political spectrum is now calling for tough steps against Israel, after its forces inadvertently killed five Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai peninsula while pursuing terrorists responsible for deadly attacks against Israeli civilians.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram daily reported that six political parties and four presidential candidates in November elections signed a joint document demanding that the government recall Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, expel the Israeli ambassador, prohibit Israeli navy ships from using the Suez canal, report Israel to the U.N. Security Council, and reconsider relations with Israel until those responsible for killing the soldiers are handed over for trial.

“[The Mubarak regime] has been replaced by a strong nation that doesn’t know weakness and knows how to get justice for the blood of its martyrs,” the statement read. “In the face of this crime, the Egyptians have united, across ideologies, political parties, police and army and put aside their differences for the sake of the nation and give support to their armed forces against this attack.”

Adding to pressure on the government, thousands of Egyptians protested outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo over the weekend.

(In the Jordanian capital, Amman, hundreds of protestors rallied outside the Israeli Embassy calling for the Israeli ambassador’s expulsion. Jordan is the only other Arab country to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, having signed a peace treaty in 1994.)

Israel sent envoys to Cairo, pledged an investigation, and expressed regret for killing the Egyptian soldiers while hunting terrorists who had carried out armed attacks in southern Israel Thursday. But Egypt rejected the apology as insufficient.

“The Israeli statement was positive on the surface, but it was not in keeping with the magnitude of the incident and the state of Egyptian anger toward Israeli actions,” the cabinet said in a statement.

“Egyptian blood is not cheap and the government will not accept that Egyptian blood gets shed for nothing.”

Egypt earlier threatened to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv over the incident, although the step has yet to be taken. Egypt last recalled its ambassador 11 years ago, during a spat over violence in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli terror attack

The scene of one of the attacks in southern Israel on Thursday. Eight Israelis were killed by terrorists armed with heavy weapons, guns and explosives who crossed into southern Israel from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. (Photo: Israeli Defense Forces)

Israel, meanwhile, has received no public apology from Egypt over the security lapses that enabled gunmen to cross from Sinai and carry out a multipronged attack against Israeli civilians on a highway running near the Israel-Egypt on Thursday, killing eight people and injuring 40 more.

Alongside the diplomatic tensions with Egypt, security tensions have mounted between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Israel said those who carried out Thursday’s assaults belonged to an Islamist group operating in Gaza with Hamas’ blessing, weapons and training. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in retaliation bombed a house in Gaza, killing several top figures in the group, which calls itself the Popular Resistance Committees.

Since Thursday night more than 100 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israel from Gaza, including one on Saturday night that killed a man in Beersheva, an Israeli city about 20 miles south-east of the strip. Thousands of Israelis took to bomb shelters.

The IDF carried out more strikes against what it said were terrorist targets in Gaza, including a Hamas training camp, weapons storage facility and smuggling tunnels.

Palestinian media said 14 people were killed. The Arab League condemned the Israeli actions and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas called for U.N. Security Council to convene a special session.

Rocky road ahead

Israel has viewed with concern the upheavals in the Arab world this year, particularly the uprising in Egypt, Israel’s first Arab peace partner.

The Muslim Brotherhood, considered the best organized of the parties vying for support ahead of November elections, has been clear in its view that the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979 should be annulled.

Islamist-leaning Egyptians are not alone in that view.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last April found that 51 percent of respondents identifying themselves as sympathizing with fundamentalists said the treaty with Israel should be abolished. But of a separate cohort of respondents, those saying they disagree with fundamentalists, the same proportion – 51 percent – felt the same way about the treaty.

Both Moussa and Nour have expressed the view in recent months that the peace agreement with Israel has expired or is no longer valid. Both men are regarded as viable presidential prospects: In that Pew survey, 89 percent of respondents gave Moussa a favorable rating, while Nour’s favorability rating was 70 percent.

Under the peace treaty signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel withdrew from the Sinai peninsula, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six Day War.

Egypt agreed to largely demilitarize the sparsely-populated, mostly desert area, which shares a porous 150-mile border with Israel. A multinational observer force was established to monitor the agreement.

In the months since the fall of the Mubarak government, security problems in the Sinai have grown. A series of attacks in the north of the peninsula including an armed assault on a police station and at least five blasts along a pipeline carrying gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan.

The Israeli military has voiced concern that Egyptian security control is slipping, with Gaza-linked terrorists exploiting the vacuum. (The Sinai and Gaza share a seven-mile border).

Earlier this month, Israel approved an Egyptian plan to send forces into the Sinai to enhance security, in the largest deployment of Egyptian troops there since 1979.

The Israeli cabinet early last year approved a plan to build a security fence along the entire Israeli-Egypt border – from the southern tip of Gaza to Eilat on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba – to deter terrorists as well as illegal immigrants, usually originating from the Horn of Africa and often smuggled across the Sinai with the help of Bedouin tribes.

Preparatory work began in November, and defense officials say the fence is being built at a rate of about 700 meters (765 yards) a day. The project is due for completion by late 2012.