Soldiers of Alpha Company 1RAR of the Australian Army get ready to clear a building during training for the multi-national military exercise RIMPAC at Pohakuloa Training Area on the island of Hawaii July 22, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Australian Maj.-Gen. Simon Stuart will lead the multinational peacekeeping force on the Sinai Peninsula starting on March 1, 2017, taking over from Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson from Canada.
“Australia is pleased to be assuming command of MFO-Sinai [Multinational Force and Observers],” Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma told The Jerusalem Post, adding that with this role, Stuart will be leading Australia’s largest command mission.
“MFO-Sinai plays a critical role in underpinning the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel which is, in turn, a major contributor to regional stability,” Sharma said. “The Australian military has played a constructive and longstanding role in the Middle East, going back over a century.”
The 1,600-strong peacekeeping force has since 1981 been charged with maintaining a decades-old buffer zone between Israel and Egypt under the direction of the MFO, which supervises the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israel Treaty of Peace signed in 1979.
“The MFO’s selection of an Australian to lead its force is testimony to the high regard in which our contribution is held by the international community,” Australian Defense Minister and Senator the Honorable Marise Payne said in a statement, adding that this is the second time in history that an Australian would lead the peacekeeping force after Maj.- Gen. David Ferguson commanded the Force from 1994 to 1997.
An Islamist insurgency, which includes Islamic State terrorists, in the desolate, thinly populated Sinai Peninsula has increased its activities since the Egyptian military toppled former president Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
In 2012 the Force’s al-Joura base, located just 10 km. south of the Israeli border was overrun by protesters who managed to overtake easily its security barriers. Once inside, they seized control of radio equipment and ammunition depots, leaving four MFO officers wounded in an exchange of gunfire.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has waged an extensive military operation against Islamic State terrorists in Sinai. Despite being few in number, they are considered by many to be one of the most effective ISIS branches outside Syria and Iraq and have carried out numerous deadly attacks on Egyptian security forces.
According to the Force’s most recent annual report in 2014, its members “continue to face the risk of being caught in a crossfire – ‘wrong place, wrong time’ – or of becoming an intentional target of militants,” and “since January 2014, when armed gunmen shot down an Egyptian military helicopter, the force has conducted its reconnaissance missions in the northeast Sinai only on the ground.”
Last September six international peacekeepers, including four Americans, were wounded by two bombs planted on a road close to their base. Egyptian security officials said Islamic State terrorists had placed bombs there, intending to target passing Egyptian troops.
Following that report US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that “the US is concerned over deteriorating security conditions in an area of northeastern Sinai where Egyptian security forces as well as civilian and military elements of the MFO, including the US military forces stationed at the MFO North Camp, are exposed to potential risk.”
And while the threat of ISIS has caused some countries taking part in the peacekeeping force to remove their contingent from the peninsula, such as Fiji in May, the US has said it would not end its mission, but is examining the possibility of replacing its peacekeepers with an electronic monitoring system.
But according to Israeli security officials quoted by Reuters following the September incident, Islamic State is “not interested in attacking the MFO. If they were interested, they could be killing them every day.” Dismantling any MFO positions, they said, would only strengthening the resolve of terrorists groups. “They would look and see that the ‘Crusaders’ there are afraid,” one senior Israeli official told Reuters, adding that “this would be powerful for the terrorists.
[It] can encourage them to be more jihadist.”