Israel allows Egypt to beef up forces
Gunmen in Sinai have stepped up attacks on Egypt’s police there, killing three policemen in separate attacks July 18. Earlier last week three cement workers were killed in a similar incident. Now Egyptian police are massing for an offensive in Sinai, with Israel’s tacit support. Israel has already allowed two infantry battalions to be deployed near the towns of Al-Arish and Rafah.
Over the past few years, the Sinai has become increasingly lawless with Bedouins, Palestinians and other groups using Sinai for smuggling weapons and drugs into both Israel and Egypt. Some of the groups are believed tied to al-Qaida, others are criminals.
Egyptian media reports say the army is gearing up for a widespread operation in Sinai, which would be quietly supported by Israel. Israel has long had ties with the Egyptian army and intelligence, which were extremely close during former President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure and continued even after he was forced to resign in 2011. Egypt has frequently mediated between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, most recently after Operation Pillar of Defense last November.
Some analysts in Egypt say that despite the extra troops in Sinai, the Egyptian military is hesitant to launch an all-out attack on gunmen in Sinai.
“The army knows there is a big problem in Sinai but with all the other problems the country faces, it does not have the resources to confront this one,” General Adil Suleiman of the General International Center for Future Studies told The Media Line.
Others say that the military will launch an attack in Sinai soon.
“Once the situation stabilizes, the army will launch operations in the Sinai,” Gen. Samih Sif al-Yazm a military specialist at the Al-Jumhuriyya Center for Strategic Studies told The Media Line. “The problem is not a few Bedouin in a hut anymore. It has become serious.”
Israel has long been concerned about growing lawlessness in Sinai. Gunmen have used hundreds of tunnels dug between Israel and the Gaza Strip to bring everything from car parts to guns into Gaza. Those weapons could be used against Israeli soldiers in a future conflict between Israel and Hamas.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian army has blocked many of these tunnels, causing shortages and price increased in Gaza.
Israel acquired the vast Sinai desert in 1967 and withdrew in exchange for a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But according to a military annex in the agreement, Egypt was only allowed to place a lightly armed police force in the area, which would not be a threat to Israeli troops. Since then, Israel has approved several Egyptian requests to place troops in the Sinai.
“Today Egypt is sending some major forces with weapons systems that are not allowed in Sinai like tanks and Apache helicopters and they have more troops than they are allowed to,” Yoram Meital, the head of the Herzog Center of Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “Up to this point all of this is happening with Israel’s consent. But what happens if the operation ends and the Egyptians decide to keep part of these forces in Sinai. This could produce tensions and disagreements in the long run.”
Meital says there are growing voices in Egypt saying that as the Sinai is sovereign Egyptian territory Israel should not be allowed to dictate the number of Egyptian troops in Sinai.
Last August, armed men attacked an Egyptian military base in Sinai, killing 16 policemen. They stole two armored vehicles and tried to use them to attack Israel. They broke through the border fence between Gaza and Israel, where one of the vehicles exploded. Israeli troops then fired on the remaining vehicle killing six of the attackers.
The incident showed the close connection between Israel, Egypt and Gaza.
“Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet in a triangle which is very explosive and very sensitive,” Meital said.
After that incident a year ago, Egypt launched a large-scale operation against the insurgents in Sinai. That did not succeed and some Egyptian analysts said it is not clear what more they can do.
“I am not sure the army has an answer right now,” Bashir Abd al-Fattah, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center told The Media Line. “They tried air strikes last year. They have tanks there. They need a new policy and with the political problems, that won’t happen any time soon.”
Michel Stors contributed to this report.