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Israel keeps wary eye on Egypt

4:24 AM, Jul 4, 2013   |    comments
Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi react after a broadcast confirming that the army will temporarily be taking over from the country's first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013 during a sit in at Cairo University in Cairo. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMED EL-SHAHED
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JERUSALEM - Israelis, who share a border with Egypt in the south, are watching the historic events unfolding in Egypt closely.

All day Wednesday, as the 48-hour deadline the Egyptian military gave to President Mohammed Morsi neared, Israelis took to Facebook and Twitter to monitor the volatile situation. At night they turned on their TVs, anxious to watch the huge crowds at Tahrir Square and hear what analysts had to say about the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Isolated skirmishes notwithstanding, the Israeli-Egyptian border has been enviably quiet since the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which ended a 30-year cycle of bloodshed.

Israelis' fears that Morsi's government, which is tied to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, would break the peace treaty, or at least aid Hamas, Israel's foe in the adjacent Gaza Strip, have proved unfounded.

"A lot of people were afraid that Morsi, a Muslim Brother and a Sunni, so like-minded to Hamas, would be lenient" toward Hamas violence against Israel, "but that hasn't transpired," said Ruth Wasserman Lande, a former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Egypt.

Lande said Morsi's administration has shown "a fair amount of assertiveness" toward Hamas.

Instead of opening its border with sealed-off Gaza to allow a totally free flow of people and goods, it has, at times, strengthened its blockade. Egypt has also destroyed many tunnels that Gazans once used to smuggle everything from food to weapons.

Just as important, Egypt has tried to prevent terror cells from operating in the Sinai, a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel.

"It was not out of love for Israel," Lande emphasized. "It is in the strategic interest of Egypt to keep the Sinai clean of Hamas and Al Qaeda, so it took assertive steps."

There is no reason to believe that Egypt's close military ties with Israel, which continued during the Morsi era, will not continue, Lande said, but it remains to be seen whether Egypt's military will be stretched too thin to properly monitor the border.

Now that the military is in charge of the country's faltering economy and all other domestic matters, "it's hard to tell how much time, energy and resources it will have left for other issues," Lande said.

Eli Podeh, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, predicted Egypt's new military government will be preoccupied with internal issues.

"The problems are inherent and related to demography. There are too many mouths to feed. Roughly half of the Egyptian people live below the poverty line."

Podeh, who visited Cairo a month ago, said there were shortages of gas and basic food, and that prices were high.

"Every sixth Egyptian is employed in tourism but the instability on the streets has stopped tourism. The hotel I stayed in was empty," the political scientist said.

With these problems to tackle, Egypt "has no interest" in stirring up the pot with Israel, Podeh said. "The Muslim Brotherhood has leverage with Hamas, and it was Morsi who brokered the cease fire" that ended two weeks of fighting between Hamas and Israel in late 2012.

Adva Klein, a resident of Kfar Azza, a kibbutz located two miles from the Israel-Gaza border, said she and her neighbors are feeling uneasy about the transition of leadership in Egypt.

"We've felt that up until now, there must have been some kind of agreement between Morsi and Israel to keep it quiet here," Klein said, referring to the relatively few rockets fired into Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza since the cease fire.

"Many of us fear that now that Morsi's no longer in charge, things will heat up."

Michele Chabin, Special for USA TODAY

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