GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — With an end to weapons smuggling to the Gaza Strip one of the key points of contention in the cease-fire agreement that last week ended hostilities between Hamas militants and Israel, Egyptian security forces arrested three people Tuesday after intercepting a large shipment of weapons smuggled into the Sinai Peninsula from Libya.
Egyptian media reports said Gaza was the intended destination for the weapons, which included 185 crates filled with 5,000 rounds of bullets, anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions, rocket-propelled grenades, landmines and explosives. The value of the shipment was estimated at $3.3 million.
It was the second weapons shipment from Libya that Egyptian authorities intercepted in less than a week. Last week, a convoy of pickups was stopped near the Egyptian town of Marsa Matrouh, not far from the Libyan border. The trucks were carrying, according to Egyptian reports, 108 Grad rocket warheads.
Tuesday’s interception came as Egyptian mediators continued working with Israeli and Hamas delegations in Cairo to hammer out the details of the Nov. 21 cease-fire that brought an end, at least temporarily, to Israeli bombardment of Gaza and militant rocket attacks on Israel.
While Israeli mediators have said that one condition of the agreement is a halt to Hamas smuggling weapons, a senior Hamas member in Gaza told McClatchy that there was no such agreement.
“We will also not stop smuggling weapons into Gaza from the Sinai and this was made clear during the initial negotiations of the cease-fire,” said Ahmed Youssef, a senior political adviser to Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya.
“Why shouldn’t we receive weapons to defend ourselves when the Israelis receive weapons from the Americans all the time?” he asked.
Youssef, considered a moderate, also said that Hamas still possesses a significant arsenal of weapons following the Gaza conflict and wouldn’t hesitate to use them against Israel if the Israelis attacked Gaza.
Israeli intelligence officials are not only worried about the large quantities of Libyan weapons reaching Gaza but also about weapons from Iran. The Iranian-developed Fajr-5 rockets were recently able to reach cities deep within Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, for the first time ever.
But stopping the weapons shipments promises to be a difficult undertaking. Weapons are routinely seized coming into Egypt from Libya. Just last month, Egyptian authorities stopped two pickups, also near Marsa Matrouh, that were traveling toward Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. They were carrying scores of rockets and mortar rounds, authorities said.
Egyptian security officials say it’s not always clear where the weapons are headed: Islamist militants in the Sinai or Palestinian militants in Gaza. Both receive weapons from Libya, authorities say.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.