Israel Oks Deployment of Egyptian Troops in Sinai

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak okayed a major deployment of Egyptian troops, including armored vehicles and helicopters, to the Sinai, The Economist reported on Thursday.

Barak said "tactical needs" sometimes override "strategic considerations."

The defense minister said he had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's backing on the decision. On Monday, Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "Egypt is having a hard time realizing its sovereignty in Sinai."

"International terror organizations are stirring in Sinai," Netanyahu said. "And their presence is increasing due to the Sinai's connection to Gaza."

Former Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Zvi Mazel told CBN News Egyptians are experiencing difficult times since the fall of former Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak in mid-February.

"There is no leadership in Egypt," Mazel said.

The transitional government appears weak to those who took part in anti-government protests in January and February.

Some wonder if the deployment will wind up backfiring against Israel. But it's not the first time Israel has allowed Egypt to deploy some troops to the Sinai.

The permanent opening of the Rafah border crossing at the end of May -- closed by Mubarak after Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 -- has allowed terrorists to move freely between Gaza and Egypt.

Over the past few months, terror cells sabotaged Egypt's gas pipeline -- which transports gas to Jordan and Israel -- five times. A year ago, a terror cell in the Sinai fired five rockets at Eilat, Israel's southernmost resort city. One rocket diverted, hitting a taxi in front a resort hotel in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, killing one person and wounding five others.

In the six months since Mubarak fell, there's been an increase in Islamic groups operating in the Sinai -- some from Gaza, some influenced by al Qaeda.

Egyptian policemen have been killed in attacks on police stations. At a station north of el-Arish, policemen battled about 100 insurgents for more than nine hours last July.

"Don't forget Hamas has a vital interest in smuggling weapons into Gaza to fight Israel," Mazal said. "Hamas needs Sinai as a base for smuggling weapons. That is against Egyptian interests," he said.

Since Mubarak's downfall, they can coordinate their plans with Hamas.

"The Sinai is a very difficult place to track down terror cells," Mazal added.

The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty -- which divided the Sinai into four zones -- allows for the deployment of heavy military equipment in one of the zones. In the second area, it allows some weaponry, and in the third and fourth, none is permitted under the treaty.

Mazal said Israel values its peace treaty with Egypt and the same is true in the reverse. In the more than 30 years since it was signed, IDF and Egyptian troops have not fired at each other.

The transitional government understands that, he said, but the lack of stability spills over into the political situation. Israel must proceed with "a lot of caution," he said.

On Thursday, Egypt announced plans to close arms smuggling tunnels with the Gaza Strip. Security forces have never worked too hard at stopping the smuggling in the past, but perhaps the growing volatility in the Sinai has convinced them the time has come.

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