Israel + Egypt (+ US too) coordinate new security moves in Sinai

“As far as I know, yesterday and the day before [Friday + Saturday], Israel agreed to authorize the Egyptian military to bring more people into the Sinai”, Israeli Brigadier-General Tzvika Foghel said in an interview on Sunday.

Foghel, who has served in Israel’s Southern Command where he occasionally is recalled for active duty, said that to his knowledge, this involved some 100 to 150 Egyptian Army personnel.

Israel’s agreement was limited, and given only for “a couple of days, during these days [of large-scale and widespread popular protest against Egyptian President Husni Mubarak]”, Foghel noted.

These exceptional Egyptian military personnal have now deployed all along the border, from Gaza to Eilat, with some stationed near the Egyptian Sinai port of El-Arish, he indicated.

“We have the same interests”, Foghel said.

Yossi Gurvitz wrote on his blog, Wish you Orwell, here and on the website of +972 magazine, a collective of Israeli bloggers, here, that “It’s hard to believe the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is not aware of Egyptian army movements into Sinai, which is technically an invasion and a breach of the peace accords. If the Egyptians acted without coordinating their movements with Israel, this is very troubling news; such a move, after all, led to the Six Days War. If the act was coordinated, then someone in the government has to explain under what authority he acts. The peace accords were approved by the Knesset, and changing them would conceivably require its approval. Furthermore, the issue raises the question of whether Israel supports the Mubarak regime against its own citizens”.

But, as it turns out, the IDF has been fully involved in the Egyptian Army’s deployment this weekend.

It seems clear that planned and internationally-coordinated steps have been taken to ensure there would be no security vacuum, in preparation for any eventuality in Egypt.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly said on American television news interview programs Sunday that “We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void”.

Juan Cole wrote on his Informed Comment blog here, today, that “Leaders who have authority do not have to shoot people. The Mubarak regime has had to shoot over 100 people in the past few days, and wound more. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have ignored Mubarak’s command that they observe night time curfews. He has lost his authority”.

According to a story on the freewheeling Israeli website, Debka.com, “Early Sunday, the Egyptian army quietly began transferring armored reinforcements including tanks through the tunnels under the Suez from Egypt proper eastward to northern Sinai … Our Jerusalem sources report the Netanyahu government may have tacitly approved it”.

However, the Israeli military has indeed given its explicit approval.

According to the terms of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel [and its subsequent annexes] negotiated at Camp David by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israel’s full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which finally took place in 1982, was conditioned on the complete and permanent demilitarized of the Sinai.

Under the strict terms, a maximum of 750 Egyptian military personnel are to be allowed in the Sinai at any given time.

But, according to Foghel, “the soldiers should be only from the Egyptian national guard or from the border police”

After the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007, Egypt requested Israel’s agreement to double – to 1500 – the number of Egyptian military personnel deployed in Sinai to deal with the new situation. After considerable debate within the Israeli military, this request was denied. The argument was won by Israeli military officers who suspected that Egypt was only using the situation as an excuse to increase its military deployment at Israel’s southern border.

Israeli Brigadier-General (Ret.) Shlomo Brom, now an analyst in Tel Aviv’s Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), said that though he doesn’t recall the exact numbers, there was eventually agreement, in talks between the two sides, on an increase in the numbers. This seems to have happened after the Hamas-engineered toppling of a wall along the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Rafah in January 2008 – as tightened Israeli-military-administered sanctions caused the shut-down in Gaza’s only electrical power plant due to a shortage of industrial diesel fuel supplied exclusively via Israel.

Foghel indicated that there is no need, under the Camp David treaty, for Egypt to obtain permission for any number of additional non-military police personnel.

Obtaining Israel’s agreement for any Egyptian special forces or members of the Egyptian intelligence services would usually be obtained through Israeli Foreign Ministry personnel, who would liaise with the Israeli Army to get permission, Foghel said.

The U.S.-led Multinational Force Observers are based near Rafah in the Sinai to monitor the situation, in accordance with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (+ annexes).

Meanwhile, in the past couple of days, there have been confusing and contradictory reports about what is going on now in the Sinai.

Israel’s Debka.com said, in the same story referred to above, that members of the Izzedin al-Qasem brigades crossed from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula overnight [Saturday to Sunday], and battled Egyptian Interior Ministry special forces in Rafah and in El-Arish.

The Debka story, posted here, also reported that this infiltration was coordinated with “Bedouin tribesmen and local Palestinians”, who were simultaneously engaged in clashes with Egyptian forces, also in Rafah and in El-Arish.

Fogel said that this report is “probably right, in the circumstances – though these days they have been acting with more common sense”.

Earlier, there were reports from Gaza that Egyptian forces had left Rafah, but that Gaza’s Interior Ministry had subsequently secured the border.

Meanwhile, a second scenario – on which Foghel would not comment – involved the possible re-deployment of the Israeli Army from the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow dirt road that runs all along the southern Gaza border with Egypt from which the IDF withdrew at the time of the unilateral Israeli “disengagement” ordered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005.

Israeli Army planners have kept the redeployment scenario [along the Philadelphi Corridor] on the back burner, but still warm, in recent years.

There are indications that, with agreement of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority that may now be in place, Israeli redeployment in the Philadelphi Corridor – on a temporary and pragmatic basis – is now again under consideration.

The tacit consent of Hamas would also be required for Israeli redeployment along the Philadelphi corridor – and may also have recently been given.

For this reason, the INSS’s Shlomo Brom says he finds this scenario far-fetched and very hard to believe. “This would mean war in Gaza”, he said. Why? “Because Hamas is in control. Whether the Palestinian Authority agrees or disagrees is meaningless, because they don’t control the Gaza Strip … It would mean the temporary reoccupation of Gaza”.

In the current circumstances, however, Hamas might find it possible to go along with such an arrangement, if clearly temporary – and if it is linked to a broader political arrangement which would envisage a better solution for Hamas than the present scenario.

Hamas might also have no choice.

The Jerusalem Post’s well-connected defense correspondent Yaakov Katz reported on Sunday here that “Regime change in Egypt would force the IDF to reallocate resources and possibly increase its strength in the South, senior defense officials warned on Saturday”.

Katz said that the Israeli Military had set up special teams working both in Beersheva in the Israeli Negev and in the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv.

He added in his JPost story that “Israeli concerns regarding Egypt relate to several issues but focus on the long-term strategic effect Mubarak’s downfall would have on the country and the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential to take over the country. The Brotherhood has said that one of the first things it would do would be to rip up the peace treaty. Israel is also concerned about the effect a regime change would have on Egypt’s border with Gaza, where security forces have recently been working more aggressively to stop arms smuggling to Hamas. While weaponry and explosives have still made their way to the Strip, the security forces have nonetheless been effective in curbing the flow. ‘A change in power could change what happens on the border

More on the recent Israeli-Lebanese firefight

lsraeli political and security analyst Shlomo Brom, [Brig-Gen {Res}], of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, INSS, has just written that: “Underlying this incident is the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the demarcation of the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel, as well as Lebanon’s political reality. In its unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel withdrew to the Blue Line. This is not the international border agreed upon by Israel and Lebanon, although its route largely coincides with the 1923 international border. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, it fulfilled Security Council Resolution 425 calling on Israel to return to the recognized border between Israel and Lebanon prior to Operation Litani in 1978. This border, which was demarcated in cooperation with the UN, is called the Blue Line. Part of the Blue Line demarcation is accepted by Israel and Lebanon and is marked jointly on the ground, but there are still points of contention between the sides regarding the unmarked sections and how to translate the Blue Line in those locations into territorial markers. There are also places where due to topography the Israeli border fence is not situated on the border itself but within Israeli territory, with small pieces of sovereign Israeli land remaining on the Lebanese side of the fence. [n.b – This analyst is expressing an Israeli view, of course, as he certainly acknowledges.] The Lebanese army has a tendency to view Israeli military activity beyond the fence as an infiltration into Lebanese territory, even if it occurs in these areas. In the August 3 incident, Israeli activity to clear vegetation took place in territory of this category, beyond the fence and in an area with no border marking. The Lebanese claimed after the incident that the route of the Blue Line at this particular point is under dispute“.

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting view on what UNIFIL did as the confrontation began, which I found thanks to a tip from our reader, who comments under the name of Yul. This report on Youtube, shows a couple of “blue-beret” UNIFIL peacekeepers [who later put on blue helmets], one waving a blue UN flag, while one shouts, alternatively, (1) to the IDF to “Stop, Stop doing anything” [the IDF was carrying out “routine-maintenance” tree and shrub-pruning operation on the other side of a fence], and then (2) “Lower your guns”, to the Lebanese Army troops, lying on their bellies with weapons pointed as this IDF “routine-maintenance” proceeds [with heavy military escort]:

Shlomo Brom writes, in his INSS insight analysis, that “The Lebanese government could certainly have protested with more moderation and complained to UNIFIL about what it deemed was an IDF violation, instead of opening fire. However it chose to demonstrate a forceful policy and to instruct Lebanese army units in southern Lebanon accordingly. To be sure, there is a question as to whether there was a specific directive from Beirut to open fire in this particular case, but it is clear that the firm policy from Beirut’s direction played a key role in decisions by the local Lebanese command”.

However, as we have learned from reports published [in identical language] in at least two separate Israeli papers last week, and discussed in comments in an earlier post on this blog, the IDF has decided — since the “Second Lebanon War” in 2006 — to implement a forceful policy by “showing the flag” on a near-daily basis in enclaves along the Blue Line, in order to demonstrate Israeli claims to sovereignty.

So, it should be noted that while the IDF has been showing its muscle for several years, the Lebanese Army engaged the IDF for the first time ever, last week…

Shlomo Brom writes that “It seems the main reason for this policy is the political need for the Lebanese army to demonstrate that it – and not Hizbollah – is the defender of Lebanese sovereignty. In the game of internal Lebanese politics, Hizbollah justifies its military force as being Lebanon’s defender. Thus Hizbollah rushed in to declare that after this incident, next time its forces would respond to an attack on the Lebanese army, this in order to underline the authenticity of its role as defender of Lebanese sovereignty”.

Actually, if memory serves, Hizballah was somewhat more deferential to the Lebanese Army, and said it would respond to future attacks on the Lebanese Army if the Lebanese Army asks Hizballah to do so…

In any case, Brom’s analysis continues: “Moreover, Hizbollah senior officials claimed the incident was an expression of Israel’s desire to draw Hizbollah into a broad military confrontation. Apparently, Hizbollah has no interest in such a confrontation, at least at this time, and this reflects the extent of the mutual deterrence between Israel and Hizbollah that evolved in the aftermath of the 2006 war. This deterrence is based on the threat and capability of both sides to seriously damage the home front of the other”…

And, Brom said, “Also important here is UNIFIL’s role. If one of the two sides is interested in harming the other, it is not within UNIFIL’s power to prevent it, nor is it within its mandate. UNIFIL serves as a mechanism to help prevent conflict eruption when both sides have no interest in friction. In this case it appears that UNIFIL, cognizant of the dispute between the sides, tried to prevent the incident. Although it failed in this regard, it played an important role in contacts between the parties intent on containing the incident and preventing its mushrooming”.

Of course, it would be better if UNIFIL could fulfill its role without looking quite so silly.

UNIFIL was reportedly notified by the IDF at 0630 am on the morning of this engagement. The IDF began its “routine maintenance” at 1130 am — and the film shown on Youtube was clearly taken at mid-day.

Brom then summarizes: “Thus the initial conclusion from the August 3 incident is that all of the involved parties – Israel, Hizbollah, and the Lebanese government – want to avoid being drawn into a military confrontation and hence will strive to contain points of friction. The second conclusion is that since the interest of all sides at this time is to minimize points of friction, efforts toward the precise demarcation of the Blue Line on the ground under UNIFIL auspices must be accelerated. [Wouldn’t it have been better, here, to have written “under UN auspices”?] The third conclusion is that UNIFIL fulfills a positive and stabilizing role, even if it is unable to satisfy exaggerated Israeli expectations – to forcibly prevent any attempt to strike Israel. Within the limited framework of the mandate under Security Council Resolution 1701, UNIFIL is indeed functioning reasonably”. Shlomo Brom’s INSS analysis can be read in full here.

Fatah fallout continues

Nabil Amr, who was spokesman for the Fatah Sixth General Conference held in Bethlehem from 4-14 August (more or less),has just resigned his posts as Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt and to the Arab League whose headquarters in Cairo, and also as head of the Fatah satellite television channel, Filastina, that he started in recent months with a reported budget of $500,000. Amr left the Conference before it ended (it was originally scheduled to last only three days) for previously-scheduled medical treatment.

Amr was shot in the summer of 2004 by unknown gunmen while standing on the balcony of his home in Ramallah, after remarks he made in a television interview in which he criticized then-leader Yasser Arafat. As a result, his leg had to be amputated during his emergency hospitalization in Jordan, and he subsequently was treated in Germany as well.

Amr, a former journalist, was a member of Fatah’s outgoing Revolutionary Council who ran for election to the Central Committee but lost.

So far, Amr has not given any explanation for his resignations from all his current posts.

He announced his reported resignation from Cairo, according to a report by Bathlehem-based Ma’an News Agency published here, and said he was returning to Ramallah, and would make his formal farwell from the Egyptian capital later.

Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Forces in Gaza, who was successful in his campaign to win a seat on the Fatah Central Committee, has reportedly been in Cairo in recent days.

The Fatah General Conference endorsed a proposal by Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas that all candidates who win elections to seats in either the Central Committee or the Revolutionary Council would have to resign from all other jobs. But the only resignation that has been announced so far is that of Tawfik Tirawi, now elected to the Central Committee, who reportedly resigned as an adviser to Abbas. It is not clear if Tirawi also resigned as head of the Palestinian training academy for security forces in Jericho.

Abbas — who is now head of the overarching Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the elected President of the Palestinian Authority as well as the newly-appointed leader of Fatah [by acclamation, in front of the television cameras suddenly called into the otherwise closed conference proceedings] now holds a concentration of political power similar to that held previously by the late Yasser Arafat.

He has just decided to call a meeting of the PLO’s 600+member Palestine National Council, or Parliament, just over a week from now. On the agenda, apparently, is a proposal to add six new members to the PLO’s Executive Committee, boosting the number of seats from 12 to 18 — one way to compensate some of those who lost in the Fatah elections.

And, Abbas still hasn’t played his other cards remaining after the elections at the Fatah 6th Conference — he can still name three members to the Central Committee, and a dozen or two members to the Revolutionary Council, subject to the approval of the Central Committee and the accord of the Revolutionary Council.

Continue reading Fatah fallout continues

Hamas reportedly criticizes rocket attacks on Israel coming from Gaza

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that “Gaza’s Hamas rulers issued rare criticism Thursday of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the strip, saying now is the wrong time for such attacks … Hamas said Thursday that it was not behind recent attacks and that it was investigating who was responsible”.

This AP report was picked up and published by Haaretz here.

On 9 March, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center reported that, according to a report on Israel’s YNet, Islamic Jihad said that Hamas arrested ten “activists” who fired rockets towards Israel, and later released nine of them.

Today’s AP story speculated that Hamas “apparently fears that new rocket fire could disrupt the reconciliation talks currently underway in Cairo”.
Continue reading Hamas reportedly criticizes rocket attacks on Israel coming from Gaza