Israel has been giving the Egyptian military a free hand to operate in northern Sinai against local jihadist groups, voluntarily ignoring an annex to the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords banning the presence of significant Egyptian forces in the area, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
According to the military annex of the Camp David accords, Egypt is allowed to maintain a civilian police force only in the eastern strip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the majority of local jihadists are currently located. Following Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Egyptian army was allowed to deploy a border patrol battalion along the border with Gaza.
An official told The Times of Israel in 2014 that due to the challenges facing the Egyptian military in the northern Sinai, “In practice, the military annex is nonexistent.”
With fighting between the Egyptian army and jihadists pledging allegiance to the Islamic State intensified this week following a coordinated attack against army positions in northern Sinai Wednesday, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that Israel has maintained its policy of ignoring the peace treaty’s military annex for the benefit of Egypt’s war on terror.
Unlike the United States, which continues to place immense hurdles on the Egyptian army before authorizing the delivery of “a few crummy F-16s” — the official quoted his disgruntled Egyptian counterparts as saying — Israel has allowed the Egyptian army to do as it pleases in northern Sinai without hesitation, realizing the common interest in its fight on terror.
“It took one phone call from Cairo to Jerusalem to authorize whatever Egypt wants in Sinai, counter to the military annex,” he said.
“Israel understands the challenge facing Egypt. We face the same challenge,” he added. “We aren’t worried that Egypt may attack Israel, nor are they worried that Israel will attack them… it is clear to the [Egyptian] leadership that not only is Israel not an enemy, it’s an ally.”
The security void left by the absence of significant military forces in Sinai has previously been filled by the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a peacekeeping force comprising soldiers from Fiji, Colombia and the United States.
But a recent mortar attack by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a local jihadist group, against the MFO’s northern base in al-Gora has left Western governments fearing for the collapse of a significant stabilizing force in the region, and Sinai’s largest employer of local Bedouins.
“This is very worrying,” the official said. “It’s not that if the force folds Israel and Egypt will begin attacking each other, but the Bedouins will become even more motivated to join the battle.”
Israel and Egypt are currently experiencing a renaissance in diplomatic relations, which are lagging only slightly behind the military coordination, the official said.
Last month Egypt announced the appointment of Hazem Khairat as its new ambassador to Israel, filling a void that lasted three years. Dore Gold, the foreign ministry’s recently appointed director general, chose Egypt as the destination of his first overseas visit. Foreign ministry officials from both countries had not publicly met since 2011.
Yet nearly four years after an angry mob stormed and ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a new building is still to be secured. The official said that both Israel and Egypt are interested in locating an appropriate building as soon as possible.
“Both the Israelis and the Egyptians want us to establish an embassy in order to reflect the true nature of relations,” he said.