Egypt on Tuesday strongly rejected criticism by Israel's top diplomat that Cairo is doing a "terrible" job of securing its porous border with the Gaza Strip against smugglers, saying Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni did not understand the issues and should have remained silent.
The diplomatic spat cast a cloud over an upcoming visit to Egypt by Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak. His talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are expected to tackle a series of security matters, including cross-border weapons smuggling to Gaza militants.
Livni infuriated Egyptian officials on Monday by accusing Egypt of doing a ''terrible'' job in securing the border, saying this stands in the way of Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians because it strengthens extremists in Gaza.
''It is better for the Israeli minister to concentrate on negotiation efforts with the Palestinians, instead of speaking randomly about issues she should not be dealing with if she is not fully aware of the situation,'' a statement from the ministry here said.
Palestinians smuggle everything from explosives to cigarettes to human beings from Egypt into Gaza. The smuggling - especially through an extensive underground tunnel network traversing the boundary - has picked up since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Israeli officials believe Hamas has stepped up arms smuggling since it violently seized control of Gaza in June.
Egypt often acts as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. That mediation, as well as arms smuggling allegations and a recent Hamas offer for a truce are expected to be on the Mubarak-Barak talks agenda when the two meet Wednesday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
The Egyptian foreign ministry statement Tuesday said it ''rejected in both form and substance'' Livni's accusations, which both here and in Israel have been linked with an earlier US House of Representatives proposed legislation to withhold $200 million in military aid until Cairo takes steps to curb police abuse, reform its judicial system and stop arms smuggling into the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Livni's remarks are ''not far from'' the US Congress proposal to link the aid with Egypt's alleged lack of action ''toward the tunnels issue,'' the statement said.
US receives incriminating tapes
In Jerusalem, an Israeli official said Tuesday that Livni's comments were an expression of the Israeli government's growing frustration with what it sees as weak Egyptian efforts to combat smuggling into Gaza, which are causing ''tension in relations'' between the two countries.
''Unfortunately, we feel a certain level of unease with Egypt's treatment of the border area,'' Arye Mekel, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, said Tuesday.
Israel is concerned that Hamas is using the subterranean tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to amass ammunition and explosives as it braces for another round of fighting. The Israeli military believes hundreds of tons of explosives have been smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels.
Further ratcheting up friction between the two countries, Israel gave US officials a number of incriminating videotapes showing Egyptian police officers helping weapons smugglers along the border or standing by while smugglers went about their business, Israeli defense officials said Tuesday.
The tapes were passed on through military channels, the officials said, in an attempt to convince the US to prod Egypt to take action against the smugglers.