The Egyptian government has decided to ask Israel to amend the peace treaty between the two countries to allow the deployment of trained Egyptian military forces into eastern Sinai to boost security in the area.
The move comes in the wake of last week’s deadly car bombings at the Red Coast resorts of Taba and Ras al-Satan in eastern Sinai, which left 35 people dead, including 12 Israeli vacationers.
The peace treaty currently stipulates that Egypt may deploy only armed police forces in the region, known as Area C.
Egypt has been criticized since the bombings, both for its security arrangements in the popular tourist area and for its responses in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks. Israeli emergency vehicles and personnel attempting to enter Taba from the adjacent Israeli city of Eilat were delayed for as much as an hour by Egyptian border guards. The lifting of the barriers reportedly came only after a telephone call from Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
London’s Daily Telegraph this week quoted Osama Al-Baz, a senior adviser to Mubarak, as saying: “If we were able to maintain military forces in Area C, it would be easier for us to control the entrances into the region.”
Israel, for its part, is prepared to allow the deployment of Egyptian military forces along the Sinai border, but is against amending the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, preferring instead to arrange the matter by means of “an exchange of letters” between the two governments.
For the past two months, Israel and Egypt have been holdings talks on boosting security along the border and on Egyptian assistance with regard to security in Gaza in the wake of the planned Israeli pullout from the area next year. Israeli sources have reported progress in the talks, but no final agreements yet.
Egypt’s responses to the terror attacks appear to reflect the same ambivalence and duality that typically characterizes Egyptian attitudes toward Israel.
Two days after the attack, an official Israeli spokesman was permitted to appear live in an Arabic broadcast on Egyptian television, for the first time since the signing of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
Lior Ben-Dor, an official in the Foreign Ministry’s Arab media section, was interviewed on Nile TV in a program hosted by Omeima Al-Baz, the wife of Osama Al-Baz.
But Ben-Dor was interrupted incessantly during the 12-minute broadcast by the other guests, terror experts Fuad Alan and Daya Rashuan, who insisted that Israel was behind the series of blasts in Sinai. They rejected Ben-Dor’s claim that that their approach legitimized additional bombings, because it diverted the focus from the real culprits.
At the official level, ill will runs high over initial responses to the blast, which took place Thursday evening, October 7, at the close of the Shemini Atzeret holiday. In one testy exchange, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit responded to a string of urgent requests from Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom with the English word “done.” However, in reality many hours passed until equipment and rescue teams were allowed to enter Taba.
Aboul Gheit later explained that Egypt never had dealt with such a large attack in Sinai, which is far from the center of the state, and never had established close military cooperation with Israel. In fact, the Israeli and Egyptian militaries have close working ties on a range of issues.
All those involved in the rescue work, including Israel’s top consul general in Cairo, Eyal Siso, confirmed that the Egyptians were cooperating fully as of Friday, the morning after the attack. However, Egyptians demanded a three-hour halt to the work early this week on various pretexts. Some say they were angry at the media reports of looting the Israelis’ possessions.
Mubarak himself, questioned during a press conference in Rome on Tuesday about Arab press speculation that Israel was behind the attacks, said it was too early to fix blame. “It was very different from other attacks, and at the moment we can’t accuse anyone,” Mubarak said. “We can accuse neither Israel nor anyone else until the inquiry is over.”
At the same time, he insisted that Sinai was safe for tourists.
Egypt’s own investigation into the terror attacks appears to indicate that they were carried out by external elements, with the help of local residents. Investigators have revealed that in recent weeks, Egyptian citizens purchased explosives from local Bedouin under the premise that they would be used in quarries or transferred to the Palestinian territories.
The Asharq Al-Awsat daily reported yesterday that the perpetrators of the attacks were members of a “dormant” Al Qaeda cell in Egypt that answers to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda number two, who is of Egyptian origin.
Israeli military sources agree that Al Qaeda or an offshoot was behind the bombings. Investigators on both sides largely dismissed initial speculation that the attacks might have been the work of Palestinian extremists. Israeli sources noted a duality in Israel’s response that paralleled the Egyptian ambivalence. Egyptians complain that the Israeli press has focused on the flaws in the Egyptian response and overlooked the overall cooperation. On Sunday, at his weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Sharon instructed his ministers not to criticize Egypt and thanked Mubarak for enabling Israel to act in Sinai.
Meanwhile, an unknown group calling itself the Abdallah Azzam Martyrs’ Brigades reiterated its claim of responsibility for the Sinai attack. An announcement from the group appeared late Sunday night on Web sites known for their support of Muslim fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization.