The conflict in Gaza comes at an interesting time in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Cairo recently saw the Muslim Brotherhood candidate assume the Egyptian presidency, while in the past two years Israel has approved two Egyptian military increases „in the Sinai Peninsula above levels set in the Camp David Accords. The disposition of the forces in Sinai coupled with the presence of the U.N.-mandated Multinational Force and Observers mean at present, Egyptian forces do not pose a significant threat to Israel. How Egypt will respond to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip remains to be seen, but should the Morsi government or Egypt’s military decide to support Gaza, such support would likely consist of turning a blind eye toward militant activities and smuggling in the Sinai Peninsula.
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Egypt is one of Israel’s most powerful neighbors. Initially hostile to Israel, the two countries have been at peace for nearly 40 years. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt established guidelines for what Egypt could do in the Sinai Peninsula in a bid to keep the peace. Strategically, the peace agreement made the peninsula a buffer between Israel and Egypt. It permitted only enough forces in Sinai to enforce security.
The agreement divided the Sinai Peninsula into four zones of increasing neutrality. Egypt is allowed an entire mechanized or infantry division in Zone A, which abuts the Suez Canal. In Zone B, its armed presence is limited to municipal police and border patrol. 1,600 international peacekeepers are spread out across 32 bases in the east of Zone C, and Israel is allowed a limited presence in Zone D.
Periodically, Israel allows Egypt to increase the number of troops east of Zone A for temporary missions with goals like combating militants and criminal smugglers. In 2011, Israel allowed Egypt to send 2,500 troops and 250 armored personnel carriers into the normally demilitarized zones B and C as part of Operation Eagle, a mission to provide security during the power transition from then-recently fallen Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Operation Eagle was joined by Operation Sinai, which came in response to a militant attack against an Egyptian border post Aug. 5 that killed 16 border guards.
Together, the two operations increased the total troop count by more than 2,500 – the exact troop count of Operation Sinai was in the low hundreds – added 80 vehicles and, with Israeli Cabinet approval, at least two attack helicopters. Egypt also was allowed to deploy armed fighter jets to El Arish to assist its ground forces in Sinai. Significantly, Israel approved all of these deployments, which are monitored by the 1,600 foreign troops that make up the U.N. Multinational Force and Observers stationed throughout Zone C. Israel did so because it is not in its interest to have unrest in Sinai, whether political protests or militant violence.
Much of the previous militant violence on the Sinai Peninsula has been directed against Israel or Israeli tourists at Sinai beach resorts. Such violence continues, as attested by the four rockets fired at southern Israel from the border town of Rafah on Nov. 14 shortly before Israel announced it had killed Ahmed Jaabari. Like Gaza militants, Egyptian militants are believed to possess Qassam and Grad rockets. Israel is content to allow Egypt to secure Sinai to eradicate these threats.
Egypt’s expanded force structure in Sinai is designed to deny militants sanctuary by bringing more force to bear than the municipal police alone can provide. Many of the new forces are stationed in the northeast of Sinai along the Egyptian border with Gaza. The official crossing at Rafah and the many illegal tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt together serve as a significant smuggling corridor along which people, supplies and contraband like drugs and weapons move. Egyptian soldiers have set up roadblocks and checkpoints to monitor and inspect traffic transiting the Sinai Peninsula to counter this smuggling. Egypt has an interest in limiting migrants moving between Egypt and Gaza, as Egypt fears the risk of instability from taking on too many Palestinian refugees. They also fear Israeli retaliation against militants in the Sinai Peninsula should Israel decide Sinai was becoming a militant haven: The Egyptian military has no interest in giving Israel a reason to become involved in Sinai.
The number of troops Egypt has in the Sinai Peninsula now does not pose a direct threat to Israel. If Israel in fact viewed the Egyptian military presence as a threat, it would likely ask Egypt to draw down the expanded troop presence. In fact, the biggest threat the Egyptian military could pose to Israel would be by becoming less involved in Sinai.
Unlike during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, when Egyptian border guards kept the Rafah border crossing closed and even engaged in skirmishes with the Palestinians, Egypt announced Nov. 15 that it would open the border crossing to allow injured persons to seek medical attention in El Arish. It reversed course and closed the border Nov. 16, reflecting the limit on Egyptian humanitarian sentiments when it comes to Rafah and taking into account Egypt’s fear of a wave of refugees and militants seeking sanctuary.
If Egypt changes course from 2008 and does not keep the border closed during a ground invasion of Gaza, Israel would have to send troops to the Philadelphi route in Gaza along the border with Egypt to cut the Palestinian territory off from Egypt. This would put Israeli and Egyptian troops closer than they have been for decades, heightening the risks for both sides.
The Rafah Crossing will illustrate Egypt’s thinking with regard to the current Israel-Gaza conflict. If Egypt allows the Rafah Crossing to stay open, and especially if it leaves the border open if the fighting in Gaza escalates, Egypt would have decided to oppose Israel, even though it would also be going against its interest to avoid a wave of refugees. Any evidence of Egyptian noncompliance to an Israeli request to draw down the added troops would even more clearly show a rift between the two regional powers.