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January 22, 2009

Cairo Excuses Israeli Attacks on Egyptians

by Jim Lobe

CAIRO - Tens of thousands of houses inside the Gaza Strip were destroyed by air strikes and artillery during Israel's recently concluded military campaign. Areas along Egypt's border with the hapless enclave, meanwhile, have not been immune from the devastation.

"Dozens of homes on the Egyptian side of the border were badly damaged as a result of nearby Israeli air strikes," Hatem al-Bulk, journalist and political activist, told IPS. "Most people living within two kilometers of the frontier have left for safer locations."

From the launch of Israel's campaign Dec. 27 until a cease-fire declaration Saturday (Jan. 17), the 14-kilometer border area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip was hit by hundreds of Israeli air strikes. Israeli officials say the attacks targeted tunnels allegedly used for smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

For the last two weeks, the authorities have banned journalists from approaching the area. "Some locals have even been arrested for talking to reporters about the destruction," said al-Bulk.

Nevertheless, in the final week of the Israeli campaign, reports emerged in the local press of frequent Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian side of the border area.

According to independent daily al-Dustour, the highest number of strikes in a single day came Jan. 13. "Air strikes kept up all day long," the newspaper reported. North Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadeel reportedly ordered mid-term school exams, scheduled for the same day, to be held in areas far removed from the border.

On Jan. 17, the local press reported that the government had issued official warnings to residents of the area to stay at least 500 meters from the border to avoid flying shrapnel from Israeli air strikes.

Local sources say that the Egyptian side of Rafah City, which straddles the border between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, has suffered considerable damage from the effects of nearby bombardments.

"The Israelis frequently hit the Palestinian side of Rafah with earth-penetrating munitions, causing houses to collapse and windows to break on the Egyptian side," said al-Bulk, a resident of al-Arish, located 40 kilometres west of the border. "Most of Egyptian Rafah still has no electricity at night because of damage to the electricity grid on the Palestinian side.

"Some of the agricultural land close to the border, mostly olive and apple groves, has also been damaged by the effects of nearby air strikes, and local farmers have been unable to tend their crops," al-Bulk added.

He went on to say that most inhabitants of Egyptian Rafah, particularly those in neighborhoods adjacent to the border, had since left for safer locations. "The city has become a ghost town because so many residents have left for al-Arish and other towns in Sinai."

On Jan. 11, several people in Egyptian Rafah were injured by flying shrapnel from Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian side of the city. "Two officers and two children were injured by shrapnel as a result of continuous Israeli attacks on the border area with the Gaza Strip," state daily al-Gomhouriya reported the following day.

On Jan. 12, Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen reportedly tendered an official apology for the incident to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki subsequently told reporters that Egypt had accepted the apology, which he called "very significant".

Critics of government policy decried the weak official response to Israeli violations of Egyptian territory, in contrast to Egypt's tough stance vis-à-vis perceived Palestinian transgressors.

"When an Egyptian officer was killed near the border in an exchange of gunfire with Palestinians (on Dec. 28), the state media played up the issue and accused Hamas of targeting Egyptians," Ibrahim Mansour, political analyst and managing editor-in-chief of al-Dustour told IPS. "Yet when Israeli air strikes injure Egyptian officers and children, a simple apology from the ambassador suffices."

Hamdi Hassan, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, drew a similarly unflattering comparison.

"Last year, the foreign minister told Gazans that they would have their legs broken if they tried to cross the border into Egypt without permission," Hassan told IPS. "But he holds his tongue when Egyptians are hurt by Israeli air strikes."

Sources close to the border also say that Egyptian airspace was violated on numerous occasions by Israeli fighter jets over the course of the three-week-long war on Gaza. "Israeli jets entered Egyptian airspace on an almost daily basis," said al-Bulk.

On Jan. 12, independent daily al-Masri al-Youm cited local eyewitnesses as saying that Israeli fighter jets "regularly flew over Egyptian airspace while staging attacks on the border region."

According to Mansour, "striking targets on the Egyptian border is in violation of all the laws and norms stipulated in the Camp David agreement (signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979), which expressly forbids either side from staging military flights on or near the border area."

Here, too, Hassan blasted the government's seeming indifference towards reported violations of Egyptian airspace.

"Israel has frequently violated Egyptian airspace in order to hit targets on the Palestinian side without eliciting any official reaction from Cairo," said Hassan. "The regime must be held accountable for its craven and complicit attitude."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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