TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Egypt is not doing nearly enough to clamp down on arms smuggling into Gaza, allowing the Palestinian militant group Hamas to build up a potent arsenal of rockets, a senior Israeli intelligence official said on Sunday.
The official, who declined to be named, said Egypt could easily halt the clandestine weapons trade, but corruption and a fear of straining Arab relations were holding Cairo back.
“This is one of the biggest problems we have,” the official told a briefing for foreign journalists, adding that Hamas had recovered from the killing of one of its commanders in Dubai earlier this year and was receiving a steady flow of arms.
“The fact that Iran can smuggle the weapons through Egypt and into Gaza leads to instability in the region,” he said.
His comments echoed criticism of Egypt in 2007 by the then Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, which led Washington to put pressure on Cairo to improve its controls.
Egypt has previously said it is fulfilling its obligations along its narrow border with Gaza. No one was immediately available for comment at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli official said a network of smuggling tunnels dug under the Sinai desert had enabled Hamas to rebuild its weapons cache, greatly depleted during Israel’s three-week offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
“Egypt can stop all this smuggling of weapons within 24 hours if it wants to,” the official said, adding: “The Egyptian security system in Sinai is corrupt. I am not talking about one or two people. I am talking about 10s or maybe even 100s of people who are being bribed by the smugglers.”
He said cooperation between the two countries was more productive in other areas, citing an Egyptian sweep this month of Islamist suspects in Sinai following an Israeli tip-off.
OVERCOMING DUBAI KILLING
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, renounce violence or back any peace agreements that were concluded by the Palestinian rivals it ousted from Gaza in a 2007 coup.
The intelligence official said the group had recently rallied after the loss of one of its weapons experts, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was killed in his hotel in Dubai in January.
The Israeli secret services are widely assumed to have carried out the killing, but the official declined to discuss the attack.
“Hamas faced some problems over the past year since they lost Mr. Mabhouh in Dubai. I think that for the first time since that time they are starting to recover today and they have had more successes in smuggling in the last months,” he said.
Hamas and its Palestinian rival, Fatah, are holding talks in Syria to try to overcome their yawning differences, which have left the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank utterly isolated from each other.
The intelligence official said Israel did not expect a reconciliation any time soon, adding that this posed a problem both for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, and for efforts to secure a Middle East peace deal.
“Abu Mazen understands he does not have any real plan that can change the situation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas understands that too. This is one of the biggest problems Abu Mazen faces and also the peace process between us and the Palestinians.”
Editing by Susan Fenton
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