The burgeoning Egyptian military presence in the Sinai is having a destabilizing effect on bilateral relations, according to two former Israeli officials.
Lt. Col. (res.) Eli Dekel (Delitsky), formerly Head of “Branch 1” of the IDF Intelligence Corps, warns that Egypt has more in mind than chasing Islamic State terrorists.
“I have no doubt that they will do everything they can to erode what is left of the peace treaty,” he said. “The Egyptian deployment in the Sinai is not defensive but offensive. The peace treaty allows them to hold one division there, and they built an array for an army [six times larger].”
In Operation Eagle, launched by Egypt on August 14, 2011, 1,000 troops as well as APCs, tanks and aircraft entered Sinai to fight Al-Qaida forces there, which later declared loyalty to Islamic State. The deployment was carried out with the agreement of Israel under the terms of the peace treaty, but the forces have grown larger and their movements closer to the border.
“Under certain circumstances, a crisis and even some kind of confrontation could take place between Israel and Egypt on the sands of Sinai,” predicted Dr. Ehud Elam, formerly of the Ministry of Defense.
“In recent years, Israel has been allowing Egypt to transfer forces into Sinai even though this erodes the peninsula’s demilitarization, which is a central component of the peace treaty. If Egypt reinforces its military presence in a meaningful way without Israel’s consent, this could lead to a collision.”
However, the article,which quoted their remarks in the Israeli publication Makor Rishon, stressed that they did not think armed conflict with Egypt was at all imminent.
Currently, Egypt has its hands full with the Islamic State forces in Sinai, and given the country’s still unsolved massive economic and social problems, war with Israel is not a likely prospect for the near term.
Nevertheless, the fact of the Egyptian military operating on a permanent basis so close to Israel’s borders harbors potential dangers. As Elam noted, a flare-up with the Palestinians in Gaza could force Cairo to intervene.
Dekel asserted that Israel cannot turn a blind eye to the erosion of the peace treaty, which forbids Egyptian troops from eastern Sinai, where they have been stationed. He even suggested that the attacks were initiated by Egypt, to provide a pretext for insertion of its forces into the region.