TEL AVIV — Israeli officials and experts here are crediting Egypt for an uptick in military and intelligence operations aimed at sustaining the nearly five-month, Cairo-brokered cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip.
Despite isolated Gaza-launched rocket attacks over the past two weeks and a foiled bombing attempt in the buffer zone beyond Israel’s southern border, security experts here say Cairo is taking tangible steps to prevent escalation from triggering renewed combat.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian Army’s Corps of Engineers has destroyed or flooded dozens of tunnels used to smuggle arms and contraband from Sinai into Gaza along the Rafah corridor.
Similarly, the Egyptian Navy’s April 4 seizure of a Togolese-flagged ship laden with Iranian-origin weaponry marks augmented efforts by Cairo to patrol seaborne smuggling through its sovereign waters.
Israeli sources here also cite expanded, albeit still insufficient, attempts to contain foreign-supported jihadist terror groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
“[Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi has proven himself to be very gung-ho about maintaining the cease-fire,” said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“So far, Morsi, despite his Muslim Brotherhood credentials and personal convictions in support of Hamas, is putting Egypt’s national interests first. He’s doing more than [Hosni] Mubarak ever did,” Frisch said of the deposed, longtime Egyptian leader whom Morsi succeeded in June 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget request earmarks $1.55 billion in aid to Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military financing and $250 million in economic support. The State Department’s budget released April 10 notes that U.S. economic assistance aims “to support a successful transition to democracy while assisting the Egyptian government to address obstacles for sustainable economic growth and recovery.”
As for the $1.3 billion in requested foreign military financing (FMF) aid, the State Department noted that grant funds will “maintain a security pillar that is a cornerstone of U.S. regional security interests.”
According to State Department budget documents, the FMF — equal to Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet considerably lower than the $1.8 billion and $3.1 billion respectively earmarked for Iraq and Israel — are intended to foster “a disciplined, well-trained Egyptian military capable of securing its borders from terrorism and illicit trafficking.”
Israel’s early April airstrikes against rocket-launching sites in Gaza, the first since the Nov. 21 cease-fire, aimed “to send a clear and firm message that we won’t go back to the situation prior to Pillar of Defense,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said in reference to the eight-day operation last November.
In an April 10 interview, Lerner said Israel is holding Hamas accountable for all rocket launches and other acts of escalation from its territory.
Although Israel does not believe Hamas wants to renew escalation, Lerner said Egypt’s involvement should work to further restrain Gaza-based provocations.
“We think Egypt’s influence on Hamas will be strong enough to keep the cease-fire in place,” Lerner said.