Israel: Reducing Sinai peacekeepers rewards terrorism

Military official predicts local jihadis will step up attacks if foreign forces cut back in Egyptian peninsula

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

American troops belonging to the Multinational Force and Observers prepare for takeoff on the coast of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on January 27, 2004.  (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons)
American troops belonging to the Multinational Force and Observers prepare for takeoff on the coast of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on January 27, 2004. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons)

An Israeli military official on Wednesday reportedly warned against proposals to reshuffle international peacekeeping forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, saying that any decrease in the number of foreign soldiers would “reward terrorism.”

According to Reuters, several of the 12 nations contributing to the Multinational Force and Observers have recently expressed concerns over the safety of their personnel after six peacekeepers were injured in a roadside bomb blast in September.

Currently, over 1,600 peacekeepers and observers monitor the terms of the 1979 Israel-Egyptian peace agreement in the demilitarized Egyptian province.

During MFO meetings in Rome on Wednesday, officials from Israel, Egypt and the US reviewed a proposal to close several remote outposts vulnerable to militant attacks from the local Islamic State affiliate, the Sinai Province.

Member countries advocating for the change said a restructuring of positions would not disrupt or significantly alter the MFO mission.

A senior Israeli IDF officer told Reuters that MFO peacekeepers were not the intended target of the terrorist group, and said the roadside bomb detonated earlier this year was likely meant for an Egyptian army convoy.

“It would reward terrorism,” the officer was quoted as saying. “The fact that they would look and see that the ‘Crusaders’ there are afraid — this would be powerful for the terrorists. (It) can encourage them to be more jihadi.”

The officer said two MFO outposts were vacated after the attacks, and no attempts have been made to re-staff them. He said Israel planned to raise the issue at the MFO meetings on Thursday.

The MFO website referred to only one closure, reporting that it removed personnel from a remote site in Northeast Sinai “as a result of an inability to safely resupply the site and continue conduct of its mission from that location.

An Egyptian diplomat said that like Israel, Cairo opposed any reduction in troops, and called the MFO mandate “essential” to the security of the region.

In August, media reports suggested that the Obama administration was quietly reviewing the future of America’s role in the Sinai. Options ranged from beefing up the US troops’ protection to pulling them out altogether, US officials told the Associated Press.

Israeli and US officials later denied Washington was considering withdrawing its forces over escalating jihadist violence against the Egyptian military in the Sinai, and said the countries were working to enhance the force’s protection.

Egypt has been battling a long-running insurgency in the region that has grown since the 2011 popular uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. After the army overthrew his successor, Mohammed Morsi, in July 2013, attacks surged. The Sinai Province has launched dozens of attacks against Egyptian soldiers

More recently, the the jihadist group claimed responsibility for blowing up a Russian passenger plane, killing all 224 people on board, on October 31.

AP contributed to this report.

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