By Jonathan Ferziger and Vivian Salama
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The Cairo protests that dislodged President Hosni Mubarak from power had an unexpected side effect: They also helped Hassan Weshah break out of an Egyptian prison, return to his home in the Gaza Strip and prepare for fresh attacks against Israel.
“Resisting occupation is the obligation of every Palestinian,” said Weshah, 28, a member of the so-called Army of Islam who had been arrested by Egyptian forces in October for planning to infiltrate Israel’s Sinai border. “I would not abandon the resistance.”
Palestinians such as Weshah are one reason why Egypt’s newly unstable border has become a headache for Israel. A pipeline that brings in 60 percent of Israel’s gas consumption looks more vulnerable after a Feb. 5 explosion from unknown causes shut it down for at least a month. The Sinai desert, a buffer for three decades between Egypt and Israel, may require a greater Israeli military presence.
“Our preparedness along the length of the border is high,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said after viewing military exercises at a southern military base March 1. Israel has accelerated defensive operations “so that we can be as protected as possible” on the Egyptian frontier.
Security concerns are putting downward pressure on Israeli stocks. The TA-25 benchmark index has declined 4.1 percent since the start of the year while the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is down 1.6 percent. The yield on the benchmark Mimshal Shiklit bond maturing in January 2020 rose 46 basis points to 5.15 percent as the shekel declined 3.5 percent against the dollar to 3.62 in the period.
Checkpoints and security posts across Egypt were abandoned last month following a withdrawal by the police. Civilians took security into their own hands for several days before the military was deployed to restore order.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said last month that the government will probably need to raise defense spending. The country spent 7 percent of gross domestic product on defense in 2008, according to a database maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, while the U.S. spent 4.3 percent and Egypt 2.3 percent.
“Let’s remember that this is a region that can change completely from today to tomorrow, not necessarily in our favor,” said retired Major-General Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel’s National Defense College. “As a state we must look at the worst-case scenario, not just the optimistic scenarios.”
The greatest security threat may be in Gaza, where Hamas seized control in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections, defeating forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
Hamas, which rejects peace talks with Israel and opposes the 32-year-old peace treaty between the two nations, was founded in 1987 as an offshoot from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest opposition group during Mubarak’s presidency.
Israel and Egypt both sealed off Gaza’s borders after Hamas took over, cutting off most civilian traffic and restricting trade with the territory. Israel has maintained a ground and sea blockade around Gaza ever since.
Egypt also enforced the blockade and occasionally cracked down on tunnel smugglers from its own side of the border, though limited exports and imports have been allowed in the past year.
Now the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt since 1954, hopes to open Egypt’s border with Gaza and raise the price Israel pays for Egyptian gas if it enters a coalition, said Essam El-Erian, a senior member of the group.
“The whole region is about to change,” he said in an interview. “We hope that the stupid policies that neglected the fact that Hamas ran and won a democratic election will also change. It’s time to see a real assimilation of what people want.”
Candidates from the Brotherhood won 20 percent of seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2005 even though the party was officially banned and the government closed polling stations in towns were it had widespread support. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square a week after Mubarak’s fall to hear Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a cleric who aligns himself with the Brotherhood.
Hamas expects Egyptian policy toward Gaza to soften after the new elections, said Mustawa Sawaf, a professor of media studies at the Islamic University in Gaza who is affiliated with the group. Egypt’s ruling army council said Feb. 14 it will hand power to a democratically elected government within six months.
Free Passage Hopes
“These changes will have great influence in supporting the rights of the Palestinian people,” Sawaf said. “We hope, as residents of the Gaza Strip who are blockaded by Israel, to have free commercial passage with Egypt.”
Weshah learned about the Cairo protests from watching Egyptian television in a group room in the prison. He described a scene that night, 14 days before Mubarak’s ouster, in which inmates started banging on the walls and bars of their cells and then overpowered guards who responded to the uproar.
“It was very scary, with intensive gunfire and prisoners shot dead on the floor,” Weshah said. “We just kept running and followed some Egyptian prisoners who took us to a safe place.”
Weshah was one of nine Palestinians who made their way to Gaza after the jail break, according to interviews with them all. Another was Ayman Noufal, one of the top commanders of the Hamas militia known as the Al-Qassam Brigades. He had been held for three years. A Hamas spokesman declined to comment.
Rockets From Gaza
Palestinian militants have fired at least 30 rockets from Gaza since Feb. 1, said an Israeli army spokesman, speaking anonymously under military rules. Israeli forces have killed seven Palestinians in Gaza during the period, said Adham Abu Selmeya, emergency-services chief in the Gaza Health Ministry.
After a taxi ride from Cairo, Weshah continued north through the Sinai desert, dodging police roadblocks by walking around the barriers and then switching to a new cab. At the border town of Rafah, a smuggler guided him to a tunnel.
The desert he crossed, the demilitarized Sinai on Israel’s southern border, is becoming more dangerous. Restoration of the gas supply cut by the Feb. 5 explosion at a pipeline metering station, planned for March 4, was postponed after a shootout between “suspected terrorists” and Egyptian security forces that delayed testing on the repaired system, according to a March 3 report to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange by Ampal-American Israel (AMPL) Corp. Ampal has a 12.5 percent stake in pipeline owner East Mediterranean Gas Co.
Ampal Chairman Yosef Maiman in a March 1 interview called the explosion a terrorist attack.
Soldiers in Sinai
The Egyptian Oil Ministry said the blast appeared to have been set off by a gas leak. Israeli National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau said the country must have energy security” and declined to speculate about who caused the explosion, said spokesman Chen Ben-Lulu.
The metering station is outside El-Arish, before the spot where the 100-kilometer (62-mile) pipeline splits into two branches bringing gas separately to Israel and to Jordan, Maiman spokesman Zeev Feiner said. He said the explosion was apparently set off by unidentified “terrorist elements,” declining to say how it was detonated.
The pipeline currently provides Israel with 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year, about $400 million worth, according to Israel Electric Corp. That is expected to rise to 7 billion cubic meters in 2014, Feiner said.
“Let’s not forget that the most important economic arrangement signed with Egypt since the peace agreement is the agreement on gas,” Landau said March 6 in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio. “When events in Egypt settle down, we hope and certainly want the supply of gas to resume.”