Egypt army denies Israel carrying out secret airstrike campaign in Sinai
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Egypt army denies Israel carrying out secret airstrike campaign in Sinai

Military says only Cairo authorized to operate in peninsula, rejecting New York Times report on covert Israeli support

Illustrative: Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, July 2013. (Mohamed El-Sherbeny /AFP)
Illustrative: Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, July 2013. (Mohamed El-Sherbeny /AFP)

The Egyptian military on Sunday denied a Saturday New York Times report saying Israeli drones, fighter jets, and helicopter gunships have carried out more than 100 airstrikes against Islamic State-affiliated terrorists in the Sinai, in a bid to help Cairo deal with the jihadist insurgency in the peninsula,

“Only the Egyptian army is authorized to and does conduct military operations in specific areas in northern Sinai, in cooperation with the civilian police,” Egyptian military spokesperson Tamer al-Rifa told Russia’s Sputnik news.

According to the US report, Israel, alarmed at the threat across the border, agreed to take action with the blessing of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, as Egypt struggled to deal with the violent uprising that has killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces and civilians. “Once enemies in three wars, then antagonists in an uneasy peace, Egypt and Israel are now secret allies in a covert war against a common foe,” said the paper.

While security coordination between Jerusalem and Cairo is known to be close, the ties are still unpopular in Egypt, despite nearly three decades of peace. In order to keep the cooperation quiet, the Israeli aircraft are often unmarked and sometimes use indirect routes in a bid to cover up the origin of the strikes, the report said.

The report said Sissi had kept the Israeli strikes secret, only letting a small group of military and intelligence officials in on the cooperation, and has kept northern Sinai a closed military area, barring reporters from the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in New York, on September 19, 2017 (Avi Ohayun)

Israeli and Egyptian officials refused to confirm or comment on the report, which the paper said was based on interviews with seven current or former British and American officials involved in Middle East policy, all speaking on condition of anonymity.

The report quoted American officials as saying that Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the jihadists. The Israel-Egypt collaboration “is the most dramatic evidence yet of a quiet reconfiguration of the politics of the region,” the New York Times said, in which shared concerns over Islamic State, Iran and Islamic extremism “have quietly brought the leaders of several Arab states into growing alignment with Israel — even as their officials and news media continue to vilify the Jewish state in public.”

According to the US sources, Israel began its airstrikes following the capture of a north Sinai town by the Islamists and the downing of a Russian charter jet over Sinai in October 2014 that killed 224 people. They said Israel has had a string of successes in killing the terrorist leaders.

In the wake of the Israeli strikes, the Islamists slowed their advance and switched their attention to softer targets, like attacking mosques and churches, the report said.

However, Israel has complained to the US that Egypt is not upholding its end of the agreement, and that Cairo was supposed to follow up on the airstrikes by sending ground forces into the region.

The report said Egypt’s reliance on Israeli help in the Sinai helped underline why the Netanyahu government was so dismissive of Obama administration peace proposals, under which Egypt and Jordan would help guarantee Israeli security if it relinquished full control of adjacent territory for a Palestinian state.

When then-secretary of state John Kerry proposed that kind of regional agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “scoffed at the idea,” Saturday’s report said. “Israel’s military was already propping up Egypt’s military, he said, according to the Americans. If Egypt was unable to control the ground within its own borders, Mr. Netanyahu argued, it was hardly in a position to guarantee security for Israel.”

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