Reflecting the acute sensitivity of the issue, Israeli officials refused to comment Monday on whether Jerusalem gave Egyptian authorities a green light to introduce tanks and aircraft into Sinai to fight terrorists there, or whether Cairo was unilaterally moving forces there in contravention of the 1979 Israeli-Egypt peace treaty.
One official, who said he was instructed not to discuss the matter, said Israeli and Egyptian security officials were in contact.
The firing by new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy of the military’s top brass earlier this month has raised some questions as to the level of coordination that will exist between Israel and Egyptian security officials. That coordination remained good throughout the Egyptian revolution that saw the deposing of Hosni Mubarak and the election of Morsy. It was based, however, on long-standing ties with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his top generals, forced out this month by Morsy.
According to Egyptian security sources, Egypt is preparing to use a combination of aircraft and tanks in Sinai for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in its offensive against terrorists there.
The plans to step up the operation were being finalized by Egypt’s newly appointed Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi as he made his first visit to Sinai on Monday, following the killing of 16 border guards on August 5.
Egypt blamed the attack on Islamist gunmen and the conflict is an early test for Morsy to prove he can rein in guerrillas on the border with Israel.
“Sisi will supervise the putting together of final plans to strike terrorist elements using aircraft and mobile rocket launchers for the first time since the beginning of the operation,” an Egyptian security source said.
Another security source said the army was planning to attack and besiege al- Halal mountain in central Sinai, using weapons including tanks, where terrorists were suspected to be hiding.
Disorder has spread in north Sinai, a region with many guns that has felt neglected by the central government since the overthrow of Mubarak.
Mubarak’s government had worked closely with Israel to keep the region under control and Islamist Morsy has promised to restore stability.
The Camp David peace treaty placed strict limits on the military presence in Sinai, although in recent years Israel agreed to let Egypt deploy more forces there to stem weapons smuggling. These troop movements were allowed on an ad hoc basis, without reopening the entire treaty, something Israel does not want to do.
After the border attack this month, Egypt launched a joint army-police operation that has raided guerrilla hideouts, arrested terrorists and seized weapons.
Directly after the attack, Israel allowed the Egyptians to use helicopters in the operation.
It was not immediately clear, however, whether the more recent deployments were coordinated with Israel, or whether the Egyptians moved troops and weaponry unilaterally into Sinai.
Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to US President Barack Obama on the Middle East and a senior director on the National Security Council, wrote Monday in The Washington Post that Morsy moved forces in Sinai without first notifying Israel – a requirement of the peace treaty.
In addition, he said, there have been new efforts to intimidate the Egyptian media, and news reports suggest that more than 100,000 Coptic Christians have left the country.
“The administration’s position needs to be clear,” wrote Ross, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If this behavior continues, US support, which will be essential for gaining international economic aid and fostering investment, will not be forthcoming. Softening or fuzzing our response at this point might be good for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it won’t be good for Egypt.”
Ross said that Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood should know that “we are prepared to mobilize the international community, and global financial institutions, to help Egypt – but that we will only do so if Egypt’s government is prepared to play by a set of rules grounded in reality and key principles.”
Ross listed those principles as respecting the rights of minorities and women; accepting political pluralism and open political competition; and respecting international obligations, including the terms of the peace treaty with Israel.