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