Israel OKs Egypt attack helicopters in Sinai

Approval necessary due to limits on weaponry in area dictated by Camp David accords; Barak requested to allow helicopters.

Egyptian military helicopter 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Egyptian military helicopter 370
(photo credit: reuters)
The security cabinet on Thursday approved a request from Defense Minister Ehud Barak to allow Egypt to deploy five attack helicopters in Sinai.
The approval was necessary because under the Camp David Accords there are strict limits on the type of weaponry that can be brought into the peninsula.
The approval came a day after the Egyptian army used air power against terrorists in the region.
Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall.”
“Whether this ends with [its] regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, gunmen fired shots at a police station in El- Arish, the main administrative center of North Sinai, on Thursday, as an Egyptian military offensive there entered its second day.
Hundreds of troops in armored cars drove out of the town to hunt Islamists blamed for killing 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday, the biggest spike in violence that has been growing steadily since last year’s overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak.
The gunfire in El-Arish, the nerve center of the government’s otherwise shaky control of the North Sinai region, showed how difficult it will be for Egypt to impose order. It followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.
Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel gunmen, Beduin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al-Qaida sympathizers.
The unidentified gunmen in El-Arish fled before police could respond, a security source said, denying a report by state television that police had fought back.
Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached the town, security sources said, part of an offensive not seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Dozens of armored vehicles, some equipped with machine guns, could then be seen driving out of El- Arish toward the settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid that military aircraft attacked on Wednesday. The troops saluted passersby and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.
Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and country’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over Sunday’s attack.
No one has claimed responsibility for the assault, in which the assailants seized two armored vehicles to storm the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel. One made it through before the attackers were killed by Israeli fire.
Israel says Islamists based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.
Israel has also been wary of Morsy’s ideological affinity with Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza, fearing he would take a softer position on Palestinian terrorism than Mubarak.
Morsy has brushed aside accusations that his politics would make it difficult for him to take a strong stance against groups sworn to destroy Israel.
His response to Sunday’s attack, which happened during the evening iftar meal that breaks the daytime fast during Ramadan, is underpinned by public anger over the deaths of the border guards.
In Egypt, there is wide respect for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts working in isolated places far from their families.
Comments suggesting outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi had been aware of a threat but took no action fueled that anger – despite suggestions he had been used as a scapegoat.
“... We never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA quoted Mwafi as telling his Turkish counterpart.
Morsy’s powers, are in any case, hemmed in by the army, which retains a strong role in setting security policy.
Residents in El-Arish, meanwhile, welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Beduin tribes, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, who make their living smuggling goods and people through a network of more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.
“We want the army to return to the border,” 45- year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed said. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in El-Arish. We want them to hit the Beduin hard.”