The seizures raise fresh concerns about security along the sensitive area that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, at a time when unrest is roiling the region. The addition of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles to arsenals of Palestinian fighters in Gaza could add significantly to the threat against Israel, whose helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft frequently patrol the strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
“We don’t want to see Egypt as a pathway to smuggle weapons,” said Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired Egyptian general in military intelligence who said several surface-to-air missiles have been intercepted on the desert road from Libya to the Egyptian city of Alexandria and north on to Gaza. “We believe some Palestinian groups made a deal with Libyans to get special weapons such as shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.”
Concerns about security in the Sinai have been growing in Egypt and among Israeli and American officials, who have called on Egypt to do more to protect the sensitive area, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. In the months since Egypt’s January-February revolution, the pipeline that feeds natural gas to Israel has been attacked seven times by militants. A cross-border attack by assailants in August killed eight Israeli civilians and prompted an Israeli counterstrike that killed six Egyptian troops, including three who later died of their wounds
Palestinian militants in Gaza command a potent arsenal that includes surface-to-surface missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel. But they are not known to have employed more than rudimentary antiaircraft weapons.
Resistance by Bedouins
The vastness of the Sinai, with its deserts and mountains, poses a major challenge to efforts by Egyptian authorities to maintain security there. In recent months, Egypt has sent reinforcements, bringing the number of troops on the peninsula to 20,000, but it has struggled to gain control in an area governed by tribal customs and populated primarily by Bedouins, who distrust the government and call the shots.
A security official and an Egyptian brigadier general who served recently in the Sinai said the seizures have included ammunition, explosives, automatic weapons and caches of heavier arms, including Russian-made Strela-2 and Strela-3 heat-seeking, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.
“We’ve intercepted more advanced weapons, and these weapons aren’t familiar to the Egyptian weapons markets; these are war weapons,” said the brigadier general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.