Egypt’s 5,000-Strong Sinai Increment – Now You See It, Now You Don’t
During the weeks of Israel’s military operations to uncover Palestinian arms smuggling tunnels from Sinai into Gaza, Washington quietly sent over a military delegation of counter-terror experts to take a look at the situation on the Egyptian-Gaza and Egyptian-Israeli borders. Their first task was to find out how vast quantities of smuggled Palestinian weapons and explosives, including anti-tank and anti-air missiles, were being slipped unnoticed into the Gaza Strip through tunnels burrowed under the feet of Egyptian border and security police.
The American delegation reported back that the Egyptian officers and personnel on the spot were not exactly straining themselves to guard the border; in fact, some were taking hefty bribes from the Palestinian terrorist organizations to shut their eyes to the traffic.
Acting on this report, the Bush administration turned to Cairo with a demand for US officers and counter-terror experts of the US-led MFO, the Multinational Forces and Observer force stationed in Sinai, to be attached to the Egyptian border units.
The Egyptian government took umbrage over the demand and decided to prove it was fully capable of handling border control without American supervision. One result was the dispatch of 5,000 security personnel to northern Sinai on Saturday, Oct. 28.
debkafile‘s Washington sources disclose that the Americans were not convinced; they are continuing to press for US observers to join Egyptian units along the Philadelphi route dividing Gaza from Sinai, maintaining that MFO’s task in Sinai is to combat terror; putting a stop to Palestinian weapons smuggling including missiles, they say, is part of the war against world terror.
debkafile‘s military sources report that the 5,000-strong force posted to northern Sinai was Cairo’s third action in two weeks to fend off the pressure from Washington.
The two previous steps were:
1. The tip-off to Israel on the locations of 13 smuggling tunnel exits within the Philadelphi route on the Gazan side of the border. IDF units on special tunnel-hunting expeditions earlier this month were able to blow the shafts up. But Egypt gained points for doing very little. Cairo much prefers Israel to destroy the tunnels at the Gaza end rather than having its own security police halt the traffic at the Sinai entrances. Demolishing the shafts in Gaza leaves the main galleys in Sinai whole and ready for reuse by Palestinian weapons smugglers.
2. Friday, Oct. 27, Egypt announced that Bedouin goatherds had “discovered” a ton of explosives hidden in the Rissan mountain range of central Sinai, 30 km from the Egyptian-Israeli border. Al Qaeda’s Sinai cells and their Bedouin collaborators are holed up in a well-fortified hideout on this range. Repeated Egyptian security forces operations to flush them out in the last two years always ran into trouble. Our sources report that the Bedouins’ “discovery” of the explosive cache was not exactly fortuitous. It was handed to Egyptian intelligence agents under the command of Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman after long haggling with the Bedouin chiefs, who were well rewarded with cash and promises of better living conditions.
According to debkafile‘s sources, the Americans were not taken in by the two Egyptian gestures as proof of a serious effort to stem the flow of smuggled arms through Sinai to Palestinian terrorists in Gaza.
Two American military battalions are stationed in Sinai, a commando unit of the 82nd Airborne Division which is based in Sharm el-Sheikh and the contingent at MFO’s al Jora base near El Arish in the north. As Washington’s contact with the Egyptian authorities, MFO Director General James Larroco has taken several trips to Cairo in recent weeks to discuss Egypt’s failure to halt the illegal traffic. He reminded Gen. Suleiman that when in late 2005, the Pentagon proposed terminating the MFO’s operation for the sake of budget cuts and transferring the two battalions to Iraq, Egypt objecting strenuously, maintaining it lacked the strength to maintain security in Sinai and halt terrorist operations which would end up attacking Israeli targets.
In the face of Cairo’s objections, the Pentagon reconsidered the transfer and the US contingents stayed in Sinai.
But Larroco still insists that the US troops be allowed to do their job. Instead of being confined to their bases and doing nothing but defending themselves against al Qaeda, they must carry out their counter-terror missions.
Suleiman’s response was to post the 5,000 security men to northern Sinai.
Israel was not put in the picture of this exchange and was therefore taken unawares by Cairo’s announcement of reinforcements in the peninsula. Prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Amir Peretz preferred to brush aside the Egyptian announcement as incorrect, insisting that the 750-man Egyptian border police force permitted to guard the Philadelphi route under existing Egyptian-Israeli accords had not been “reinforced.” Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak echoed their disavowal on Oct. 30.
The accords which placed the limited Egyptian force on the border to monitor terrorist movements were brokered by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice last year to enable Israeli troops to withdraw from the Philadelphi route and so complete their pullback from the Gaza Strip. Their breakdown reflects badly on all parties.