Israel and Egypt are “very close” to an agreement allowing Egypt to move about 100 extra police officers into the border region to stop alleged smugglers moving weapons into the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials have said.
Israeli and Egyptian officials made progress on Monday on the security arrangements at talks in Cairo one day after the Israeli cabinet approved a new version of Israel’s plan to withdraw from Gaza.
Egypt has its own parallel plan for restoring talks between Israelis and Palestinians, helped on Monday by reports that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has accepted Egyptian proposals for a reorganisation of Palestinian security forces.
Egyptian cooperation could be crucial for Israel if Israeli forces withdraw from the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, giving the Palestinians unrestricted access to an Arab country for the first time since Israel captured Gaza in 1967.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said deploying the extra Egyptian forces would require no amendments to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which limits the type of forces Egypt can maintain in the border area. “We were talking for a few months now about finding the ways how to give Egypt the ability to have more troops in the Egyptian part of Rafah in order to stop those smugglers from smuggling weapons through the tunnels,” he told a joint news conference with Egyptian presidential adviser Usama al-Baz.
“We are now very close to implementing this understanding between Israel and Egypt that will allow them to have more than 100 troops, more than 100 soldiers, that will be in the Egyptian part of the border,” he added.
An Israeli official said later that Shalom was referring to an Egyptian deployment of some 100 extra police along the 8km of border between Gaza and the Sinai peninsula.
Al-Baz did not confirm agreement was imminent but said that arrangements could be made to make the Gaza Strip more secure.
“It’s not a matter of us doing anything particular for the sake of Israel,” he added. Helping Israel disarm the Gaza Palestinians could be a sensitive task for the Egyptian authorities, as well as a possible source of conflict.
Al-Baz told Shalom that Egypt put the emphasis on the Palestinians maintaining security inside the Gaza Strip rather than on Egypt policing the border, a diplomatic source added.
Egypt floated its own plan last month and offered to send up to 200 experts to Gaza to retrain Palestinian security forces.
The Egyptian plan was contingent, however, on steps by Israel and by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials said on Monday that Arafat had told Egyptian President Husni Mubarak he accepted the Egyptian proposals for Palestinian security reforms.
Arafat was responding by letter to Egypt’s mid-June deadline to agree to the reforms or risk losing Cairo’s help in stabilising Gaza after a withdrawal, they said.
In another sign of a thaw in relations between Egypt and Israel, Shalom announced the two countries would set up a new bilateral committee with a broad agenda he did not specify.
“I believe (the committee) will solve many of the misunderstandings that we had in the past,” he added.
The other Israeli official, who asked not to be named, said the committee would decide final details of the security deal.
Al-Baz indicated that Egypt was unhappy with Israel’s new Gaza plan, which in its latest version puts off any decision on dismantling Jewish settlements for at least nine months.
Al-Baz said: “We hope that Israel will stick to its original plan because it is on that basis that we based our hopes and the Palestinian hopes for progress…We can’t introduce new changes at every step.”