Egypt Asserts New Dynamic After Clashes With Israel

A recent conflict between Egypt and Israel looked as though it might spiral out of control. It started when Israeli troops killed five Egyptian security personnel. James Hider, Middle East bureau chief for The Times of London, talks to David Greene about how Egypt is determined to flex its new foreign policy identity.

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[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Violence along the border area of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip did not begin with action by the Israeli military, as the introduction states. Rather, the clash began when gunmen crossed from the Egyptian desert and launched a series of attacks in southern Israel. Israel responded with strikes along the Egyptian border and inside Gaza.]

DAVID GREENE, host:

As we look at that fast-changing situation in Libya, it's useful to be reminded of how complicated relations are between countries across the region. In recent days, a border incident between Egypt and Israel looked as though it could spiral out of control. It started when five Egyptian were killed as Israeli troops launched a raid on militants at the border between the two countries, and it threatened to become a full-fledged diplomatic crisis. It shows a new dynamic with an Egypt that's eager to assert its own foreign policy identity.

Joining us now to discuss this is James Hider, the Middle East correspondent for the London Times. He's speaking to us from Jerusalem. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES HIDER (London Times): Morning.

GREENE: James, let's start by rewinding the events. Let's rewind this incident late last week that set off this round of tensions. There were the killings of five Egyptian security officers.

Mr. HIDER: Well, yes. You have to go back a little bit further than that because the Egyptian security officers were killed after a group of suspected Palestinian militants escaped out of Gaza. They escaped into the Sinai desert in Egypt, crossed about a hundred miles of desert, came down to the Israeli border where it meets the Red Sea, and there's a big coastal resort there called Eilat - very popular holiday resort for Israelis - and they managed to get through the largely unguarded border fence down there, and started attacking Israelis.

And they shot up a passenger bus. They shot up a car with four people inside -civilians - and they ended up killing eight Israelis. And there was a fairly extended gun battle between Israeli security forces and these Palestinian militants. And when they were trying to flee back across the border, the survivors, it was quite a big (unintelligible) - about 15 to 20 people - the Egyptians were trying to stop them and the Israelis were pursuing them. It's not a particularly well-marked border. And in their Apache helicopter, they managed to shoot five of these Egyptian security forces.

GREENE: All through Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt, you know, we heard there was this delicate peace maintained with Israel. How would things have been different if Mubarak were still in power?

Mr. HIDER: Well, they called it the cold peace. There wasn't any love lost between the two sides. But the 1979 Camp David peace treaty had been upheld 'cause Hosni Mubarak was obviously a very close ally of the United States as well. So there was this uncomfortable triangle, but that resulted in very close military cooperation down on the border.

And Israel, whenever it was attacked by Gaza militants, would feel it had a free hand to attack, to carry out airstrikes. Even in 2008, they carried out a huge offensive into Gaza, to stamp out those rockets. And Mubarak, as an ally in the region, would effectively play backstop. He would seal off the border. He would basically allow Israel to go and do whatever it wanted whereas now, that has changed now that Mubarak is gone.

Egypt is run by a military counsel of his generals. And while they want to maintain the status quo - they're not interested in starting anything here -but they are very sensitive to what is going on on the street, because they saw the revolution that swept away their boss, and there's a lot of anti-Israeli sentiment on the streets of Cairo at the moment.

GREENE: Including coming from Egyptian politicians. I mean, there's been a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric.

Mr. HIDER: Yeah. I mean, one of the leading candidates for the presidential elections next year is Amr Moussa, who used to be Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister and then became the head of the Arab League. And he has come out with some fairly harsh statements. He and some other politicians were calling for Egypt's ambassador to be recalled. There was a mob on the street outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, calling for the Israeli diplomatic mission to be thrown out.

Amr Moussa himself said, you know, the days when Israel could kill our sons are long gone. So it's become a much more hostile tone amongst Egyptian politicians.

GREENE: That's a pretty powerful statement. I mean, is it possible that the Camp David accords and the peace it created - I mean, is that all in danger at this point?

Mr. HIDER: I think there is a danger that populist forces in Egypt will be playing with that with the elections ahead, and I think that is extremely dangerous because it has been the foundation of Israel's security for the past three decades. And in effect, all the peace in the Middle East depends on that agreement.

GREENE: We've been speaking to James Hider of the Times of London. James, thank you.

Mr. HIDER: Thanks very much.

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Correction Aug. 30, 2011

The audio and text introductions to this story incorrectly stated that deadly violence along the border area of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip on Aug. 18 began with action by the Israeli military. The clash began when gunmen crossed from the Egyptian desert and launched a series of attacks in southern Israel. Israel responded with strikes along the Egyptian border and inside Gaza.

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