Observer force in Sinai increasingly under threat of ISIS

The multinational force that monitors the peace between Israel and Egypt in Sinai is staying put, despite the rise of ISIS terror attacks.

By
October 4, 2015 15:43
Colombian Multinational Forces

Soldiers from the Colombian Multinational Forces and Observers battalion to Sinai. (photo credit: REUTERS)

THE RECENT appointment of Gene A. Cretz as the new Director General of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai underlines the deep commitment of the US to the MFO and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and refutes reports hinting that Washington was considering pulling out and dismantling the force.

In recent years, as terror has escalated (primarily with the rise of the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province terror group, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis), there has been increased fear for the security of the MFO troops. This is particularly true for those based in northern Sinai, which is a hot zone for ISIS terror.

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On September 3, four American and two international peacekeepers from Fiji were wounded in two Sinai bomb blasts and required medical evacuation to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba.

The MFO subsequently removed its personnel from a remote site in northeast Sinai “as a result of an inability to safely resupply the site and continue conduct of its mission from that location, MFO Checkpoint 1-F, in the Fiji Battalion area of operations.

The MFO continues to perform its mission and closure of this checkpoint in itself has no negative impact on the MFO’s core verification function,” an MFO communiqué stated.

Shots have been fired on a number of occasions at the MFO’s base in El-Arish and there were also attempts to ambush MFO vehicles or trap them at roadblocks. Intelligence information reveals that the Sinai Province group has been plotting a wide attack against the MFO.

Responsibility for the security of the MFO troops belongs to the Egyptian government. Cairo’s military and security forces are indeed active on this matter, but the feeling among force managers and their governments – particularly the US – that Egypt could and should be doing much more.

As such, officials in the Obama administration have been holding a series of talks recently reviewing all aspects of the force’s operations. Analysis of these discussions in media outlets around the world have conjectured that the US was reconsidering its continued participation in the force, something that would inevitably lead to the dismantlement of the body.

But this interpretation is incorrect, a senior US official confirms to The Jerusalem Report. The discussions in Washington were not focused on the future of the observer force in Sinai, but rather on how to improve safety and security. Washington has absolutely no plans to dismantle the MFO, says the official.

The MFO is an independent international body whose establishment was based on an appendix to the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt under the title “Protocol for the Treaty of Peace,” covering the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and subsequent security arrangements.

According to this appendix, the border area between Israel and Egypt is divided into four zones. Three of these are situated on the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt, and the fourth is in Israel. According to the appendix, there is a limit to the number of troops and the types of weapons both sides are allowed to station in each of these zones.

The role of the force is to supervise both sides, to ensure that the agreement is being kept, in all of its clauses, and to report any violation. The force comprises some 1,677 inspectors from 12 countries: Australia, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay. The US supplies the greatest number of observers, some 700. Since its establishment, the MFO has been led by American officials who, like Cretz, were former State Department personnel.

THE FORCE, which has land, sea and air capabilities, is stationed on two bases. One is in Sharm e-Sheikh, and the other is in northern Sinai, near El-Arish. In the 33 years of its existence, the majority of casualties sustained by the force were injured in traffic accidents, air accidents and vehicles driving over mines.

Considering the close security relations between Israel and Egypt, neither state is really in need of the MFO to maintain the peace and its security arrangements. Egypt has always kept its end of the deal in the dozens of years since the peace treaty was signed. It never brought forces into Sinai beyond those allotted in the security appendix.

The peace treaty has survived even the toughest moments, including the murder of seven Israeli tourists in 1985, who were gunned down by an Egyptian soldier, as well as the wave of terror carried out against both Egyptian troops and Israelis on the Israeli side of the border, by militants allied with al-Qaida.

Over the last year, Israel and Egypt have tightened their intelligence and security cooperation, following the rise to power in Cairo of President Fatah al-Sisi. Israel has allowed the Egyptian army to bring more troops and military equipment into the Sinai zones than are permitted in the treaty’s appendix, in order to allow it to improve its capabilities on the war against the terror of the Sinai Province group.

Nevertheless, Israel does have an interest in seeing the MFO in place and active. Although the observer force is merely symbolic in view of the tight cooperation between the two neighboring countries, the Israeli attitude is that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Today, there is a government in Cairo that is friendly to Israel, but there is no way to ensure that will continue forever.

In Washington as well, there is a clear understanding of the need to preserve security along the Sinai border.

The commitment has been reinforced by the appointment of Cretz, a senior US diplomat, to replace David M. Satterfield as MFO Director-General.

Cretz, who is no stranger to the region, recently retired after more than 30 years at the State Department. He refused to be interviewed for this article. “I better keep away from comments until I know what I am talking about,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Cretz, born in 1950 in Albany, New York, joined the State Department in 1981 completing a rich 34-year career, specializing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He served in various positions in Pakistan, India and China, as well as in Syria (twice), Egypt and twice in Tel Aviv.

The first of his stints in Israel was 1991- 1994, the years of hope surrounding the Oslo Accord, in which he was also responsible for Arab-related matters (including the Gaza Strip). He returned to the embassy on HaYarkon Street in 2004, where he served as deputy chief of mission. He speaks Dari, Urdu, Arabic and Chinese.

After his years in Tel Aviv, he was appointed US ambassador to Libya. Starting in 2011, he found himself embroiled in diplomatic embarrassment. In one of the quarter-million cables exchanged by the US embassy and published by Wikileaks, a confidential memo from him reveals colorful language and opinions about former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Following the release of the Wikileaks cables, Cretz was recalled to Washington, but his career was not over. After a while, he was appointed ambassador to Ghana. And now he has been tasked with ensuring that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is kept to the letter.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman


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