Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Debate over Re-militarising the Sinai

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Following the recent outbreak of terror attacks on the porous border between Egypt, Israel and Gaza, debate in Israel has been focussed on how best to prevent this violence from reoccurring. Egypt has been engaged in similar considerations, deploying 1,500 troops in the Sinai yesterday, supposedly to prevent a terror attack by Islamic Jihad that intelligence had warned of. Furthermore, according to MEMRI, reports surfaced last night that the Egyptian Government was considering implementing a buffer zone along the border with Gaza in a bid to crack down on the weapons smuggling that has become rife over the last few months; although these reports were swiftly denied. The Economist gave a good summary this week of the position that Israel finds itself in:

Israel faces a dilemma with far-reaching strategic consequences. Thirty years of peace with Egypt have rested, above all, on a demilitarised Sinai. The peninsula is patrolled by an international force and monitored by America from the air, to ensure that both sides keep their armies out, even though Sinai is sovereign Egyptian soil. Until now, Israel had said no to Egyptian demands to let more troops on to the peninsula, beyond what is specified in the 1979 peace treaty. Yet it urgently needs Egypt to tighten security. "If nothing is done today," an aide to the Israeli prime minister says, "you will see extremist groups establishing a larger footprint in Sinai."

Egypt has for years had difficulty imposing order on the peninsula. The situation has worsened since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in February. At the end of July, dozens of gunmen attacked a police station in el-Arish, Sinai's biggest city. A mixture of banditry, tribal infighting and jihadist activity means the authorities "have little control beyond the city," says an el-Arish resident. Criminals-some of whom escaped from prison during Egypt's revolution-have blocked roads and carried out numerous carjackings. Jihadist groups (sometimes claiming to be "al-Qaeda in the Sinai peninsula") have called for the creation of an Islamic emirate.

Yet the announcement of a renewed Egyptian military presence in the Sinai has been met with mixed feelings in Israel. While Israelis would no doubt welcome renewed efforts by the Egyptians to bring order to the Sinai, there are concerns over a return of Egyptian troops to the area. Under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, the Egyptian army has been kept out of the Sinai, except for in specified limited numbers, since Israel withdrew from the Peninsula in 1981. In recent months, Israel has already twice agreed to allow Egypt to deploy additional troops into Sinai despite the provisions of the treaty.

In her Jerusalem Post column today, Caroline Glick has extensively outlined the various pitfalls of permitting Egyptian troops in the Sinai, particularly concentrating on the opaque agenda of Egypt's ruling SCAF.

Supported by the Obama administration, the Egyptians say they need to deploy forces in the Sinai in order to rein in and defeat the jihadist forces now running rampant throughout the peninsula. Aside from attacking Israel, these jihadists have openly challenged Egyptian governmental control over the territory.

... Egypt's military leaders do have an interest in preventing jihadist attacks on Egyptian installations and other interests in the Sinai. But does that interest translate into an interest in defending Israeli installations and interests? If the interests overlap, then deploying Egyptian forces may be a reasonable option. If Egypt's military leaders view these interests as mutually exclusive, then Israel has no interest in such a deployment.

Glick notes that the current regime in Egypt appears to be far more receptive to Hamas' parent group, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, than its predecessor was.

... Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak... believed that maintaining a quiet border with Israel, combating the Muslim Brotherhood and keeping Hamas at arm's length advanced his interests. Mubarak's successors in the junta do not perceive their interests in the same way.

To the contrary, since they overthrew Mubarak in February, the generals ruling Egypt have made clear that their interest in cultivating ties with Israel's enemies - from Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood - far outweighs their interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship with Israel.

From permitting Iranian naval ships to traverse the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years to opening the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza to its openly hostile and conspiratorial reaction to the August 18 terrorist attack on Israel from the Sinai, there can be little doubt about the trajectory of Egypt's relations with Israel.

On the other hand, Haaretz editorialises that the terror attacks and retaliations that would result from Israel continuing to prevent the Egyptians from remilitarising the Sinai could be far more likely to lead to a war with Egypt than an Israeli decision to work with the Egyptians to eliminate their mutual enemies.

Egypt's desire to send more forces into the Sinai to deal with the growing - and mutual - threat posed by the Bedouin living there, global jihad organizations and Palestinians coming from Gaza has met with Israeli hesitation. The fear of setting a precedent - both regarding a change in the peace treaty's security appendix and possible events while an augmented force is deployed - is understandable.

But to make a decision, one must ask why the limits were set on the Egyptian forces. These restrictions were meant to prevent the threat of invasion by Egyptian armor, backed by fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. Such a threat is far from being realized at present.

The mutual threat against which the Egyptian infantry plans to act endangers Israel and Egyptian-Israeli peace. A string of terror attacks and retaliations is liable to deteriorate into a clash between the two countries' armies. On balance, it's preferable to allow a limited, lightly armed Egyptian force into the Sinai now to avoid a confrontation with a much larger, heavily armed force in a battle that could be sparked by an escalation on the border.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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