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Should peacekeepers be withdrawn from ‎Sinai?

While concerns have been voiced about the situation in North Sinai they are ‎insufficiently compelling to warrant the withdrawal of the MFO, experts say

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 27 Aug 2015
Egypt's North Sinai as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt July 1, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
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This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

The deterioration of security conditions in North Sinai since the 25 January Revolution in 2011 has led ‎some to question the continued deployment of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) there.‎

The MFO’s mission does not include combat tasks. Under the security protocol of the Camp ‎David peace accords signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979 the MFO’s mandate is limited to ‎monitoring military movements either side of the border.‎

While official sources say there has been no shift in the position of either Egypt or Israel towards ‎the role of the MFO, questions have been raised about its presence by think tanks and ‎individuals.‎

David Schenker, director of The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, published articles on the subject in June 2012 and May 2013. In both pieces he ‎questioned the wisdom of keeping the observers in Sinai given the growth of radical Islamist ‎groups and anti-Israeli feeling in the peninsula.‎

More recently, the New York Times published an explicit call for the withdrawal of the MFO. It argued that the cost of maintaining the mission could no longer be justified ‎given the stability of relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.‎

The MFO’s website provides details of the mission’s funding but does not specify how much ‎money, if any, has been spent on updating security systems at the mission’s headquarters.‎

The Egyptian army is responsible for protecting the MFO. The only incident of any substance ‎with which they have had to deal involved the discovery of explosives close to a runway used by ‎peacekeeping forces. Military sources, usually tight-lipped over anything to do with the MFO, ‎said at the time that a number of subterranean hideouts containing camping equipment, military ‎clothes and ammunition had been found and destroyed.‎

Military expert General Hisham Al-Halabi points out that from a legal standpoint it is Egypt and ‎Israel, as the main parties to the peace treaty, and the US as its sponsor and the major partner in ‎the MFO, which have the final say on the status of the peacekeeping forces. As part of the ‎ongoing demonstration of good intentions between both sides there is a determination to ‎maintain the force and there has been no sign from either side of the desire to alter its mandate.‎

Twelve countries take part in the MFO: the US, which contributes the logistical support battalion ‎SPTBATT and an infantry battalion USBATT, Norway, New Zealand, Italy, France, Fiji, the ‎Czech Republic, Columbia, Canada, Australia, Hungary and Uruguay. Between them they ‎contribute 1,700 personnel.‎

Al-Halabi, who teaches at the Nasser College of National Defence, says that attempts to target the MFO ‎‎— one involving a group of Bedouins, a second, quickly dealt with by the army, involving Ansar ‎Beit Al-Maqdis (which has subsequently renamed itself Wilayat al-Sinai) – pale in comparison to what is happening elsewhere in Sinai.‎

He questions the motives of those now calling for the withdrawal of the MFO.‎

‎“What do these people have to gain by producing exaggerated and misleading reports about the ‎situation in the Sinai? There has been no official complaint from either the MFO or from the ‎states that contribute forces,” he says, noting that during the last handover of command, which ‎took place recently, security issues were not raised.‎

The multinational peacekeeping force had a budget of $82.6 million in 2014, and the fiscal year ‎ended with a $606,000 deficit. The funding gap is expected to increase to $9 million by 2016 ‎and $20 million by the end of the 2020 fiscal year, according to sources cited by the New York ‎Times.‎

Military expert Lieutenant General Hossam Kheirallah says the MFO still has an important role ‎to play.‎
‎“Why is that subject even being raised in the US? Is it because of the funding, much of which ‎comes from the US? I don’t think so. I think it is one of those forms of pressure that arise from ‎time to time, or a move to serve certain US aims regarding arrangements in the region,” says ‎Kheirallah.‎

‎“The important point is that Egypt is committed to its role with respect to the MFO and does not ‎want to see the forces withdrawn. And nor does Israel. And the fact is that on the ground ‎security in Sinai is now under control.”‎

General Mohamed Qashqoush, Military Adviser to the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, ‎told Al-Ahram Weekly that while concerns have been voiced about the situation in Sinai they are ‎insufficiently compelling to warrant the withdrawal of the MFO.‎

But is the continued deployment of the peacekeeping force necessary given the stability of ‎Egyptian-Israeli relations? ‎“Yes, their existence is necessary even under the conditions of stability and the agreement of ‎both Egypt and Israel under the current security conditions,”‎ says Al-Halabi.‎

The MFO has two camps in north Sinai. The largest, located in Al-Jura, about 20 km south of the ‎Mediterranean coast, is where the MFO command is based. Its function is to provide for all the ‎operative and logistical needs of the peacekeeping forces and observers. Covering an area of ‎about 2.7 square kilometres, it is equipped with an airport, gym, theatre, barracks, various administrative ‎buildings, clubs, cafeterias, food outlets, a swimming pool and other facilities.‎

The second camp overlooks the Red Sea. Though smaller, it is equipped to support a military unit ‎the size of an enhanced battalion.‎


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly referred to the Multinational Force and Observers as UN peacekeepers

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