Calls to raise Israel-Egypt treaty troop limits

AP News
Posted: Aug 29, 2011 6:30 AM
Calls to raise Israel-Egypt treaty troop limits

A deadly attack on Israel from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has sparked calls to raise the number of Egyptian troops allowed in the area under the historic peace treaty with Israel, to counter a surge in Islamist militant activity.

But some in Israel, afraid the recent revolt in Egypt might lead to the collapse of the pact, are wary of altering it in any way.

Israel says Palestinian militants crossed from Gaza into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, made their way along the Israel-Egypt border, crossed back into Israel, attacked Israeli vehicles and killed eight people on Aug. 18.

The assault underscored the increasingly lawless situation in Sinai, where weak policing and difficult terrain may be letting it turn into the latest focus of Islamic militant activity in the region. A new attack alert led to the deployment of additional Israeli troops along the border, the military said Monday.

Israel's insistence that the peninsula be significantly demilitarized was a key aspect of the 1979 accord between Israel and Egypt. The stipulation, essential for reassuring Israel back then, reflected skepticism that Egypt would remain eternally friendly.

Today, however, this provision makes it difficult for Israel itself to demand the Egyptians do a better job of policing the vast desert triangle that separates Asia from Africa.

"Israel is sitting on a time bomb," said counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor. "The fact that the peace border between Israel and Sinai ... is no longer a peace frontier requires Israel to regroup."

In the aftermath of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's fall earlier this year, Israel permitted Egypt to send in more troops than the 750 allowed under the treaty. Egyptian security officials said about 10,000 troops are already present in the 23,000 square mile (60,000 square kilometer) territory, and about 4,000 are posted along the Israeli border. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Calls are mounting for permitting far greater numbers _ if not totally freeing Egypt from any need to get Israel's permission, which the Egyptian public had always considered an affront to its national pride and sovereignty.

The matter generated discussion in the region over the weekend.

In an interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, a former Egyptian foreign minister, said the treaty with Israel was not sacrosanct, and provisions could be revisited _ including the limitations on troops.

On Sunday, a senior Israeli official said Israel should consider revising the provisions of the peace treaty to allow Cairo to deploy more troops.

Many Israelis are leery, though, fearful that the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers could gain influence in Egypt after an election later this year, and that the peace treaty with Egypt would ultimately fall apart.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed cool to the idea in comments attributed to him Sunday.

"I am against the idea of changing the peace treaty," a government official quoted Netanyahu as telling members of his ruling Likud Party. The prime minister also said if changes are proposed, he would bring them before a Cabinet body for approval.

The 1979 peace accord _ the first between Israel and an Arab nation _ is one of the few achievements of decades of Mideast peace efforts. As part of that deal, Israel returned the Sinai, captured from Egypt in the 1967 Mideast war.

That was a major strategic gain for Egypt, not only undoing a humiliating territorial loss but also restoring to Egypt total command over the Suez Canal, allowing it to reopen for global shipping.

In 1967, Egypt menacingly beefed up troops in the Sinai and used its control of the tip of the peninsula to close the Straits of Tiran, cutting off shipping to Israel from the south _ and leading Israel to attack. In 1973, Egypt attacked, and the Sinai was the scene of bloody tank battles.

Such scenarios seem a world away from the reality that has prevailed since the peace treaty. Israel has kept few troops along that border. There was almost no military on the other side, the peninsula is sparsely populated, and the frontier was quiet for decades.

The bloody Aug. 18 attack shattered any sense of calm. The brazen attack on Israel and the deaths of several Egyptian police during the firefight strained relations between Israel and Egypt, prompting officials to examine security measures already being beefed up.

Israel is speeding up construction of a fence along the 150-mile (230-kilometer) frontier, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday it would be completed within a year or so. Additional visual and electronic intelligence-gathering devices have been put in place. The military has deployed hundreds more troops along the border, including elite forces, defense officials said.

Critics say the cross-border attack should have come as no surprise. In recent years, tens of thousands of illegal African migrants have shown how easy it is to sneak into the country over the porous frontier with Egypt. Further evidence comes from the thriving weapons and goods-smuggling trade Palestinian militants have set up with Sinai Bedouin to dodge the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The mountainous desert now harbors an array of militant groups, including Palestinian extremists and al-Qaida-inspired jihadists, Egyptian and Israeli security officials say.

In recent years radical factions, some of them Palestinian, attacked popular Sinai beach resorts, killing more than 120 people between 2004 and 2006. In 2007 and 2008, Palestinian militants attacked Israel twice from Sinai. In 2009, Egyptian authorities said they had uncovered a conspiracy by Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group to attack Sinai tourist sites.

Since Mubarak's fall, and despite the infusion of more troops, militants have repeatedly attacked Egyptian police facilities and a natural gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan. Islamic radicals who fled Egyptian prisons during the chaos surrounding the revolution sought asylum in Sinai, hooking up with radical groups that already had built strongholds there.

All this places Israel in a very sensitive position regarding the Sinai, said Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv.

"On the one hand, Israel has to operate resolutely against terror groups and rocket fire. It also has to ... cooperate with Egypt to prevent Sinai from becoming a center of global terror, and terror against Israel," Karmon said. "I hope the introduction of forces into Sinai won't become a security threat to Israel in the future. That is the risk Israel is taking."