The Knesset approved Wednesday the agreement with Cairo that would see 750 elite Egyptian border guard forces (accompanied by choppers and speedboats) deployed along the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi route, on the Gaza Egypt border.
Yet the questions subject to public debate in recent months have remained open: Has the peace agreement with Egypt been breached, by weakening the military clause guaranteeing the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula? Can we expect Egypt to gradually exploit the breach and transfer more forces into Sinai in the coming years? Would it act effectively in a bid to stop infiltrators and advanced weapons’ smuggling, which could endanger southern Israel?
The answers to the above questions are not simple, but we must recall Israel was the one to decide out of its own initiative to disengage from Gaza, a withdrawal that would not be complete without leaving the Philadelphi route.
This is the case both due to Israel’s desire to leave Gaza, in accordance with the norms of international law, as well as the difficulty of keeping isolated military forces in the area, and beyond the future (international?) Gaza-Israel border.
We must therefore weigh the situation against the backdrop of a decision that surprised the Egyptians and not a deliberate Egyptian-initiated move.
Egypt has indeed undertaken several steps toward building banned fortifications in the Sinai in the first years after the peace deal was signed. However, it appears this trend was halted once the multinational monitoring force (MFO) established to oversee the Sinai’s demilitarization went into action.
The force, which mostly comprises American soldiers, performs its task with efficiency, with both sides expressing their satisfaction and appreciation.
Egypt would therefore not be able to bring more forces into the Sinai beyond what was agreed upon in the latest deal, unless it removes the multinational force, as late Egyptian President Nasser did to the United Nations forces prior to the 1967 war.
It also does not appear that the peace agreement has been undermined or opened to changes, as we are talking about a limited agreement or a memorandum referring to a specific border area and a limited, agreed upon quantity of weapons and equipment related to special circumstances (weapons smuggling and infiltrators.)
Egypt badly burned by terror
The main question left open is whether Egypt would do the job and prevent weapons smuggling and various kinds of infiltrations, after for many years it has turned a blind eye to the phenomenon or acted against it half-heartedly.
However, the situation today is different. Egypt is assuming explicit responsibility in accordance with an agreement it is about to sign out of its own free will. There is no more “obligatory” obligation than a signed agreement between two countries.
Hence, if Egypt would continue to turn a blind eye to what goes on on its side of the Philadelphi route, it would be openly violating an agreement before the eyes of the international community.
This is where we should mention that Egypt is a country that prides itself on more than 5,000 years of history, which always highlight its importance on the international stage, and even argues for a permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council, just as Germany and Japan have done.
Yet we’re not only talking about respecting international obligations. Egypt has an interest in keeping the Gaza Strip quiet and preventing the movement of hostile, radical elements in the area.
Egypt was badly burned by terror attacks organized in Taba, Ras a-Satan, and Sharm el-Sheikh right under the noses of the country’s security services, renowned for their efficiency and strictness.
This was a result of Egypt turning a blind eye to the movement of those who smuggled weapons, drugs, and women into Israel. We are talking about prolific activity that took place over many years and no doubt comprised “loud” organizations that included the transport of weapons and equipment in trucks along hundreds of kilometers in Egypt and the Sinai, as well as a concentration of people and excavation equipment.
Egyptian security services no doubt knew about all this, but thought they were viewing acts directed against Israel only. This conception shattered as now it appears that at the same time there were those who prepared the terror attacks on tourist targets in a bid to undermine Egypt’s economy and President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Egyptian-Israeli security ties to tighten
Egypt, which views itself as the most important Arab states, and believes it has a key role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, took upon itself a highly responsible mission both because of reality’s constraints as well as a desire to advance its own security interests.
There is certainly an important change in its policy here. Under the new reality, security cooperation between Israel and Egypt would tighten, while conflicts with the Palestinians and even firefights may ensue, should Palestinian leader Abbas fail to exercise his control over Hamas and Co.
Egypt enters a phase where it is facing a test: It must uphold far-reaching obligations it took upon itself knowingly, while risking to some extent its ties with the Palestinians and various Muslim elements.
Mubarak, who faces an elections campaign accompanied by hostile protests for the first time after four terms where no one dared challenge his rule, recently took some difficult decision related to Israel (the gas sale, the agreement to set up special industrial zones, and more.)
The implication is that he is currently undergoing, despite the difficulties, a process of shifting policy, whose results we’ll be seeing in the coming months.