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Washington — But even before Mubarak’s ouster, MFO troops have had to pay increasing attention to protecting themselves. The changes in Sinai began with the 2007 takeover of nearby Gaza by the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Israel’s subsequent siege of that territory. Since then, “force protection,” the military term for securing personnel on the ground, has become a major concern, and the MFO is devoting many of its resources to this purpose. Among other things, MFO troops have had to fortify their bases because of attacks by militants and jihadists in Sinai.
Currently, the MFO is directed by senior American diplomat David Satterfield from its headquarters in Rome and by New Zealand’s Warren Whiting, who commands the troops on the ground. American soldiers, most of them members of the National Guard, make up one-third of the force. Other countries contributing troops to the force include Columbia, Fiji, Italy and Australia.
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, proposed to end America’s participation in the force, citing the need for troops in other conflict areas. With both Israel and Egypt sticking to the agreement over several decades, the need for the MFO — at least with its current footprint — was put into question for the first time. But Rumsfeld’s proposal was eventually taken off the table.
“The question is whether [the MFO] is still relevant today, when their main concern is maintaining their own security,” said Geoffrey Aronson, director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, in Washington. Aronson, who convened a conference this year on the security situation in Sinai, said that many in the Pentagon still believe that American participation in the MFO is unnecessary, but he added that “there is an element of political importance in showing America’s support for the peace accord.”
Sinai was not exempt from the increased unrest that followed Mubarak’s ouster. This included the frequent sabotage of a pipeline through which Egypt supplied natural gas to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. As a result of these attacks, Israel allowed Egypt to increase its forces in Sinai beyond the levels set by the Camp David treaty in order to help counter violence.
The increase has shown few results. An attack in early August was the boldest attempt yet to break into Israel through Sinai. Jerusalem permitted another troop increase, which included temporary movement of Egyptian tanks and heavy weaponry into the desert, and the use of helicopter gunships against militant groups. The MFO was informed of these changes but was not part of the negotiations between Jerusalem and Cairo.