Egyptian troop movements come in response to the expanding power vacuum in Sinai.
The Egyptian army has been deploying large anti-terrorist forces in parts of the Sinai peninsula without informing Israel in advance. The peace treaty between the two countries limits the Egyptian military presence in Sinai.
Some of the Egyptian forces in the peninsula were sent there with Israel’s consent, but Haaretz has learned that forces have also been deployed without Israel’s prior approval. Israeli government officials only learned about it after the fact. Although Israeli defense officials declined to comment on the matter, they did note that there has been good security cooperation between the two countries, adding that there is regular contact between the two sides.
The Egyptian troop movements come in response to the expanding power vacuum in Sinai. On August 5, militants took over an Egyptian border post in the peninsula, killing 16 soldiers and stealing two armored personnel carriers that then headed to the Israeli border. One of the APCs exploded in the Kerem Shalom border terminal linking Egypt, Gaza and Israel; the other drove two kilometers into Israeli territory before it was hit in an Israel Air Force strike.
According to the 1979 peace agreement negotiated at Camp David, Egypt is not allowed to introduce tanks into certain areas of Sinai, including the vicinity of Al-Arish, to which dozens of tanks have been transported over the past several days. The treaty also bars the use of fighter aircraft, including helicopters, but that was approved retroactively by the Israeli security cabinet.
More than a year ago, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to maintain seven military battalions and six companies in Sinai, including tank units, in addition to the forces permitted by the peace treaty itself. Before the August 5 terrorist attack, Egypt had not stationed the full complement of troops in Sinai that it was permitted. Since the attack, the Egyptians have done so, but have also exceeded the terms to which Israel has agreed.
At the moment, Israel has decided not to respond to the unilateral Egyptian moves, apparently to avoid a confrontation. Nonetheless, it is seen as a source of future problems, particularly with the entrenchment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power in Egypt. The Egyptians could ask to have their current troop presence remain in Sinai until the end of their military operations there, although it is not clear when that would be.
The situation puts Israel in a dilemma. Just three days ago, Mohammed Gadallah, legal adviser to President Mohammed Morsi, said the president was considering amendments to the Camp David Accords to provide Egypt with “full sovereignty” over the peninsula.
Speaking at the Islamic Solidarity Conference in Mecca yesterday, Morsi stressed that for Egypt and Arab Muslim countries, the Palestinian issue remains the most urgent, and called on the Palestinians to unite their ranks.
This week, Egypt’s Information Minister Salah Abd al-Maksud, a Muslim Brotherhood member, said: “Egypt will not normalize relations with Israel until occupied Palestinian land is freed.” He added that “we are carrying out our relations with Israel based on agreements Israel has made with Egypt. Therefore, even if we request to change some stipulations of the Camp David Accords, the president and national institutions have stated that they respect the agreement.” However, Maksud also said that “this entity [Israel] stole Palestinian lands, and for this reason we will not normalize relations with it until those lands are freed.” The information minister was not asked, and did not specify, if the “occupied lands” include territory conquered in 1967, or all of Israel.