Following reports on remote site evacuations by the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in North Sinai earlier this month, a change appears to be in the cards as to how the mission will function in the future.
An informed security source told Daily News Egypt last week that the MFO has evacuated the Al-Zahir and Al-Mawasi outposts south of Sheikh Zuweid, some hours after a militant attack last Saturday on Al-Safa checkpoint in neighbouring Al-Arish resulted in the killing of 15 police officers and soldiers. Media reports also citing security sources said that at the beginning of the month two other MFO outposts in Rafah were evacuated.
The MFO responded to an inquiry from Daily News Egypt on the reports of evacuation saying that earlier this month they “removed all of its personnel from two remote sites”, adding that the MFO has changed “the status of remote sites in the past”.
However, the multinational mission did not answer questions on a possible relationship between the recent militant activity in the area and the evacuation of their sites nor the current status of control over the evacuated sites or the duration of the evacuation. However, they asserted the changes “have no impact on the MFO Treaty of Peace mission”.
The army spokesman was not available to comment on the case when contacted by Daily News Egypt.
The mission of monitoring the treaty
In the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, annex I stated that upon request from both parties a United Nations Force and Observers will supervise the implementation of the security protocol annex limits arms in Sinai according to zones A, B and C, along with zone D on the Israel side of the borders.
Two years after the signing of the treaty, a veto threat by the former Soviet Union to a UN motion to deploy a mission to observe the treaty led to an agreement between Egypt, Israel, and the US to form a peacekeeping mission outside the UN framework that inherited the same duties, what is now the MFO.
“The MFO was deployed in a very different age,” non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and expert on security issues in the Middle East Zack Gold told Daily News Egypt, referring to several changes over the course of the 37 years since the treaty was signed, on top of which was a changed relationship between Egypt and Israel.
Security challenges rose dramatically in Sinai, especially in the northeast, following the 25 January Revolution creating an opportunity for deepened security cooperation between Egypt and Israel based on mutual concern over militant activity in the area.
There were early signs of cooperation in August 2011 when Israeli and Western media reports discussed Israel’s approval from then defence minister Ehud Barak to Egypt deploying “helicopters, armoured vehicles, and thousands of troops” into eastern Sinai.
The rise in militancy, that witnessed an even more dramatic escalation in Sinai following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt by the army in July 2013, also had an effect on the mission of the MFO in the peninsula.
But even before that it was widely noticed that an adjustment to the way the MFO conducts its mission in the area was necessary.
Research by the Egyptian political science researcher Dareen Khalifa published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in February 2013 argued that a change of threat has long been present in Sinai.
“The reality on the ground, more than thirty years since the signing of the treaty, indicates that the real threat for both sides comes from a third party, the jihadist militants, who during Mubarak’s regime started carrying out terrorist attacks in Sinai as well as breaching the border with Gaza through the tunnels,” Khalifa wrote.
The Future of the Mission?
“The role of the MFO is to monitor the peace treaty. How can you monitor the treaty via having troops in the middle of an area of such militant activity?” Gold weighed in on the challenges currently facing the mission.
In March 2013, militant Bedouins put an MFO site in Rafah under siege twice, depriving it of food and water supplies in protest of the arrest of their relatives by the Egyptian army. In both cases the situation was resolved after the intervention of the army with tribal leaders.
The challenges since then have developed into direct attacks on MFO sites that have injured troops and damaged facilities and equipment.
The latest of the attacks was in September 2015 when a bomb targeted an MFO vehicle, leading to the injury of six troops including four Americans and two Fijians.
The attack came following reports that the US, the country with the largest number of troops in the MFO mission, is weighing options on the future of its involvement in the mission. The options ranged from “beefing up their protection or even pulling them out altogether”, the Associated Press reported back in August 2015.
However, the US opted to fortify as it sent 75 more soldiers later in September to add to more than 700 currently deployed in Sinai.
The question of the future of the MFO is on the agenda for both the Egyptian and Israeli governments. “Both Egypt and Israel have been resistant to adapting the MFO in Sinai … this has come to change,” Gold noted.
Maybe until a radical mutually-agreed upon change in the functionality of the mission, an imminent change may already be happening in either increasing the security of the MFO sites or a closure of those in the most endangered areas.
According to the 2014 MFO annual report, early in 2013, the MFO, upon review of the role and utility of existing remote sites, closed two sites following consultation with the treaty parties and unmanned a third site.
A security source told Daily News Egypt last week that the MFO is temporarily evacuating the sites, evacuated this month, in order to enhance the security of the checkpoints and to ensure safe routes for logistics, after repeated deadly attacks by militants in the area.
This is enhanced by the arrival of 100 British engineer corps earlier this month in Egypt. The engineers, Gold reveals, have been deployed to the main MFO North Camp. The deployment seems to be an extension of what the MFO 2014 report described as an “offer of a military engineer from the United Kingdom to assist us in advancing our protective project work” which the mission said it “accepted with appreciation”.