Violence in Cairo underscores conflict over Egypt's Israel ties

CAIRO — Clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo left more than 350 people injured Monday, underscoring the tricky position of Egypt's military rulers as they try maintain the peace treaty with Israel against rising demands that Egypt end relations with its Jewish neighbor.

The fierce fighting was an extension of Sunday's protests throughout the Arab world commemorating what Palestinians call their "nakba," or catastrophe, when thousands fled or were forced from their homes after Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948.

Egyptian authorities on Sunday had blocked protesters from reaching the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, a day when Israeli forces fired on protesters who besieged its borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, leaving at least 13 dead. The Egyptian actions angered demonstrators in Cairo, however, who burned Israeli flags and appeared poised to storm the Israeli Embassy when security forces moved in before dawn Monday.

Video footage posted online showed security forces lobbing tear gas canisters to break up the protest. One YouTube clip showed protesters rubbing their watery eyes after a tear gas attack as others carried off a young man who appeared to have been struck in the leg with a rubber-coated steel bullet.

Rawya Rageh, an Egyptian correspondent for Al Jazeera English, the satellite news channel, said she and her crew were briefly detained outside the embassy, their cameras and other equipment confiscated. As an ambulance raced to the scene, siren blaring, Rageh said on air that the melee was "a reminder that, although Mubarak may be gone, certain red lines remain."

In the weeks since popular protests led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, the military council has pledged that it would abide by the country's peace treaty with Israel. But U.S. and Israeli officials have been watching with concern as a series of developments over the past month have shown how difficult the council's position is as Egypt plans its first free parliamentary elections in decades.

In today's Egypt, protesters openly demand a permanent opening of the Rafah crossing to Gaza, an end to reportedly discounted natural gas exports to Israel, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and a referendum on whether to extend the peace treaty with Israel.

Anti-Israeli sentiment isn't new to Egypt, where TV channels show a daily montage of Palestinian suffering in the occupied territories. With Mubarak's heavy-handed security apparatus in shambles, however, anti-Israeli activism and speech have proliferated as Egyptians assert their independence from what they consider "the puppet regime" of the former president.

A tough stance against Israel is sure to be on the platforms of candidates running in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, scheduled for September. Candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group with the best-organized political bloc, recently announced plans to contest half the seats in Egypt's legislature, a move that deepens concern of an Islamist agenda in the next administration.

Still, with all of Egypt's domestic woes — the collapse of the tourism industry, a cash-strapped government, a gaping security vacuum — revisiting peace with Israel is just one of many voter issues candidates must address. In addition, any incoming government will think twice about breaking with Israel because of the nearly $2 billion in annual aid from the United States to Egypt, its longtime incentive for sticking with the treaty.

So far, the ruling military council appears caught in the middle.

It initially won praise from Egyptians for plans to open the border with Gaza, ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas, and for serving as an intermediary to revive Palestinian unity efforts.

But the planned opening of the border at Rafah has yet to take place, and Sunday's actions prompted denunciations from critics, who say the army is maintaining the status quo of the Mubarak era.

Israel thanked Egypt for its actions.

Key elements of Egyptian society also are split about the future of relations with Israel.

In advance of Sunday's anti-Israel demonstrations, dozens of prominent clerics, including some ultraconservative sheikhs who'd typically back actions supporting the Palestinian cause, issued a joint edict against Egyptians striking at Israel, saying the priority now is domestic stability and security.

Marching to the border with no military cooperation, the edict said, would "put the country in danger and would provoke an Israeli reaction that would harm the country and kill thousands."

Amr Samy, 27, a web developer who follows the literalist Salafi branch of Islamist thought, said he was all for Palestinian freedom but that now wasn't the time for Egyptians to join the fight next door.

"Imagine if the Israeli soldiers got worried and reacted badly, shooting someone. It would start a war and destroy the country," Samy said. "We should take care of our own country and rebuild it, and then start helping our neighboring countries."

Others, however, thought the Egyptian military went too far when it ordered tour companies to halt their rentals of buses to ferry protesters to the border. The military also turned back convoys of activists and humanitarian workers near the border, citing a ban on all travel to Rafah.

Outrage over the military's actions spilled into central Cairo late Sunday, where Egyptian protesters chanting, "We are all Palestinian!" burned Israeli flags and appeared poised to storm the Israeli Embassy. State media said Monday that 140 people were arrested and more than 350 were injured in the incident.

"I understand there's a need for security and there's a need for some sense of order, but people are mostly nonviolent and it should be our right to show solidarity with people that are suffering an illegal and inhumane siege," said Noura Khouri, 30, who was among several activists whom Egyptian forces turned away from Rafah. "We wanted the army to help us and give the chance for those convoys to break the siege."

(McClatchy special correspondents Mohannad Sabry in Cairo and Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)


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