The Daily Star - Lebanon
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
By Nicholas Kimbrell
BEIRUT: Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was slammed by Egyptian government officials and press as a provocateur and "war criminal," days after the Hizbullah leader admitted that Sami Shihab, a Lebanese national in Egyptian custody, was a Hizbullah operative involved in arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, Egyptian security sources said Monday they were tracking 10 more Hizbullah operatives hiding in the Sinai Peninsula.
Cairo has accused Hizbullah of plotting to sow political unrest in Egypt, by planning attacks on Egyptian institutions and Israeli interests and tourists in Sinai's popular Red Sea resort towns. During a phone call Sunday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that Egypt "will not allow anyone to violate its borders or destabilize the country."
Last week, officials in Tel Aviv warned of a "serious, immediate and concrete threat" against Israelis in the Sinai area and called on tourists to leave the area immediately.
Over the past five months, Egyptian police have reportedly detained a group 49 Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinian nationals for belonging to what has been labeled a Hizbullah cell operating out of Egypt. The men have been accused of planning attacks in Egypt, and on Sunday Egypt's Attorney General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud said they would also be charged with espionage and plotting to destabilize the country.
Security officials said on Monday that during interrogations the men in custody had revealed the names of 13 additional operatives, 10 of whom are Lebanese.
Reports conflicted on whether the three other fugitives were Sudanese or Palestinian.
The sources said Egyptian security forces were pursuing the men in a mountainous region in Sinai near the town of Al-Nakhl. They were believed to be hiding out with bedouin tribesman active in the area's drug smuggling operations, and possibly trying to enter Gaza, only 200 kilometers to the north, through the many smuggling tunnels linking Egypt to the impoverished Hamas-run territory.
In a rare admission, Nasrallah said Friday that Shihab was indeed a member of Hizbullah but he denied all reports that the group was aiming to hit Egyptian targets.
"Brother Sami is a member of Hizbullah, and what he was doing on the Egyptian-Palestinian borders was a logistic mission to transport arms and equipment to the Palestinian lands; all other accusations are false and full of imagination and bluffs," he said.
"If helping the Palestinians whose land is seized and who are being killed and besieged is an accusation, then I thereby declare that I am guilty of this accusation," he added.
But in weekend editorials and news programs, the Egyptian press attacked Nasrallah with a barrage of insults and accusations. "Egypt must start proceedings to try him in an international court. He has admitted to the crime. He must be handed to the Lebanese government as a war criminal," said the editor of Rose Al-Yussef, a pro-government paper.
The state-owned Al-Gomhuria referred to the Hizbullah chief as "Sheikh Monkey" and called him a "highway robber." Al-Ahram, another state-owned daily, said Nasrallah had violated Egyptian and international law and should be arrested.
Tensions between Egypt and Hizbullah, an ally of Syria, Iran and Gaza's Hamas rulers, swelled during Israel's three-week assault on Gaza in December and January, with Hizbullah blaming Egypt for not opening a border crossing with the besieged strip and calling for mass demonstrations in the country.
The lawyer representing the men in Egyptian custody, Montasser Al-Zayyat, said last week the charges could be politically motivated. "My impression is that it is a fabricated case created by Egyptian security in the context of bad relations between Hizbullah and Egypt," he said on Wednesday.
But that insinuation was complicated by Nasrallah's admission Friday.
The Egyptian Information Minister, Anas al-Foqi, said Monday that Nasrallah's speech had supported Egypt's claims. And the head of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Commission said Hizbullah's actions, including forgery and plotting against the state, constituted "a terrorist attack forbidden by Egyptian and international law."
When asked to respond to the allegations, a Hizbullah source told The Daily Star on Monday that Nasrallah had already addressed Egypt's charges. "The whole issue has been discussed thoroughly by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah," the source said. "There is nothing more to add at this point."
According to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, Shihab told his interrogators that he had operated a Hizbullah cell in Cairo since 2005 and that after the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah's top military commander, he had been tasked with planning attacks against Israeli forces from Gaza and targets in Sinai.
Hizbullah blamed Israel for the Mughniyeh hit and, on repeated occasions, Nasrallah has vowed to avenge his death. Tel Aviv's call last week for Israeli tourists to leave Sinai was only the latest in a number of warnings issued over the last year.
Yisrael Katz, Israel's Transport Minister who is considered very close with Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Sunday that Nasrallah "deserves death."
In Lebanon, a leading March 14 politician questioned the wisdom of Nasrallah's admission. The head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, said Sunday that he thought the Hizbullah chief had made an "error" in claiming Shihab, saying that the group, which heads the parliamentary opposition, was not interested in inciting instability in Arab states.
- With agencies.