For first time, Egyptian president confirms Israel helping fight Sinai jihadists

Sissi says cooperation closer than ever in CBS interview Cairo has subsequently attempted to quash

An explosion during an attack on an Egyptian police checkpoint  in el-Arish, north Sinai, Egypt, on January 9, 2017. (Islamic State Group in Sinai/AP)
An explosion during an attack on an Egyptian police checkpoint in el-Arish, north Sinai, Egypt, on January 9, 2017. (Islamic State Group in Sinai/AP)

Egypt’s president has confirmed that Israel is helping Egyptian troops battle jihadists in the restive Sinai Peninsula.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told CBS News that cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem was tighter than it had ever been, in comments published late Thursday.

“That is correct… We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis,” he told the US news outlet when asked if the military coordination between the countries was closer than it had ever been.

The comments came during an interview with the channel’s “60 Minutes” program that is slated to air Sunday evening. According to CBS, Sissi has subsequently demanded that the interview be pulped, apparently over questions about human rights abuses and the deaths of protesters, but the channel has insisted it will be shown nonetheless.

In February, The New York Times reported that Israel was covertly carrying out a full-blown aerial campaign against Islamic State targets in Sinai, with Sissi’s blessing. The Israeli aircraft are reportedly often unmarked and sometimes use indirect routes in a bid to cover up the origin of the strikes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/PMO)

Israel and Egypt had never previously confirmed the existence of the campaign.

“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 shortly after The New York Times report.

Since the army toppled Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, hundreds of policemen and soldiers have been killed in attacks in the Sinai by jihadists and other extremist groups, including the Islamic State-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

Illustrative: Photo taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing after an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city, November 28, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Sissi has ordered a series of devastating operations meant to return calm to Sinai’s restive north, carrying out large bombing campaigns that have killed hundreds, as well as razing homes to create a buffer zone with the Gaza Strip.

Jihadists regularly claim to have been targeted by Israeli aircraft.

According to foreign reports, Israel has conducted drone strikes in the peninsula on Islamic State targets. Cooperation has also reportedly taken the form of significant intelligence sharing.

More publicly, since 2013, Israel has also allowed additional Egyptian forces into the peninsula, beyond the level permitted under the 1979 peace accord between the two countries. Heavy weapons, like tanks, artillery and attack helicopters, have been brought into Sinai to fight the Islamists, a sign that Jerusalem is not concerned those big Egyptian guns could be turned against it.

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

Ties between Egypt and Israel, once mortal enemies, have thawed in recent years. Since 2017, Sissi has twice met openly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a sign of improved relations between the countries, though normalization with Israel is still taboo among many Egyptians.

Talks between Netanyahu and Sissi have been thought to revolve around Gaza, which borders the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has played a key role in attempts to broker calm along the Gaza frontier between Israel and the Hamas terror group.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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