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Egyptian Military on Gaza Border Threatens Israel’s ‘Edge’

19:32 Aug 30, '05 / 25 Av 5765 By Alex Traiman

Egypt’s deployment of troops along Gaza’s Philadelphi route ends a 26-year-old peace treaty with Israel, and severely threatens Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ over its southern neighbor.

According to a military agreement initially ratified by the Israeli cabinet Sunday, 750 Egyptian troops will be responsible for border control between Egypt and the newly vacated Gaza Strip. The Egyptian military will be responsible for ensuring that weapons and other contraband are not smuggled across, or under the Philadelphi route previously patrolled by Israeli troops.

The formal agreement will be voted upon in the Knesset on Wednesday.

The peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 prohibits any Egyptian military presence in most of the Sinai peninsula which borders Israel. The treaty was formulated after Israel ceded control of the Sinai, after winning possession of the large, resource filled, land mass in the Six Day War of 1967.

Although many consider the peace with Egypt to be “cold” at best, with both Egypt and Israel advancing their military capabilities over the past several decades, the peace treaty has held, as neither side has provoked or initiated any military attack. Militarization of the Sinai will effectively end the longstanding agreement.

One of the primary principles for keeping the Sinai demilitarized, was to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military advantage” over its southern neighbor, according to a report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). The United States was a key broker in the 1979 treaty, under the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

The U.S. has been committed to this advantage for one reason: “Israel will always be militarily outnumbered with regard to the artillery, tanks, and combat aircraft that can be deployed by a coalition of Arab States,” according to the JCPA report originally published in 2001. By having a demilitarized Sinai, Israel has established an integral military buffer zone between its largest opposing army in the case of war.

U.S. President George W. Bush and previous Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed America’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative edge during the President’s first term in office. However, the U.S. is one of the largest sponsors of Egypt’s military buildup over the past twenty-five years.

According to the JCPA, “On the one hand, the United States has argued that Egypt is not a threat to Israel, and the entire military aid program to Egypt is based on the premise that Egypt is at peace with Israel. On the other hand, the U.S. tacitly accepted Israel’s point that it cannot ignore Egypt’s capabilities when calculating the military balance in the region.”

And now with the Israeli cabinet’s approval of a military buildup in Sinai along the Gaza border, it is Israel who is negating its own qualitative edge over its militarily equipped neighbor.

While 750 troops do not in themselves represent a significant military buildup, it is some of the supporting military equipment permitted in the new Philadelphi agreement which is raising the fears of opposing Israeli politicians and security brass.

Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz (Likud) has been publicly criticizing the proposed agreement over the past several days claiming the deployment of Egyptian forces and equipment “severely harms the greatest achievement of the treaty with Egypt, the demilitarization of the Sinai.” He later called the decision, “a bad and dangerous agreement that will harm Israeli security and destabilize the peace between Egypt and Israel.

Egyptian forces stationed along the 14 kilometer Philadelphi Route will be permitted to carry sidearms, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and machine guns. On the ground, troops will be supported by armored vehicles, jeeps and all-terrain-vehicles.

In addition, Egypt will patrol the border from above with a helicopter fleet. According to Middle East Newsline, the Egyptian’s fleet includes a number of Western made aircraft including the U.S. Made AH-64 Apache, the SA-342 Gazelle, the light transport UH-12E, and the S-70 Black Hawk.

Aside from infantry, artillery and air cover, thirty naval officers will be stationed at the coastal border. The Egyptian Navy will be allowed to patrol the territorial waters of Sinai and Gaza.

MK Benyamin Netanyahu, who announced his candidacy for the Likud leadership Tuesday, strongly attacked the Philidelphi agreement, claiming “This is another mistake of PM Ariel Sharon, which will give a tailwind to terrorism and infuse terror bases in Gaza with weapons.

As part of unilateral disengagement, the United States has demanded that the Palestinian Authority (PA) be permitted to open an international seaport, as well as the reopening Gaza’s international airport. The PA has repeatedly requested that Israel refrain from inspecting foreign items entering Gaza, a source of contention among many Israeli military officials.

If Israel concedes to the demands, this would most likely establish an even deeper role for the Egyptians in Gaza. PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath stated that Egypt and the PA will share joint control of Gaza’s airport, as both oppose the presence of Israeli soldiers at border crossings. “There’s an understanding between [Egyptian] President Mubarak and [PA Chaiman] Abbas to jointly operate the international airport,” Shaath said Sunday.

Egypt’s agreement with Israel requires Egypt to counter terrorism, smuggling, and infiltration across the Philadelphi route. However, Egypt has done little to prevent weapons smuggling over the past few years. On Monday, Israel Defense Forces uncovered an intricate underground smuggling tunnel between Egypt and Gaza. Numerous such tunnels have been discovered since the start of the most recent, and ongoing intifada.

In another indication of Egypt’s neighboring military capabilities, Egypt’s foreign minister declined a request Saturday to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

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