Egyptian officials are expressing fears that Israel may seize control over the Sinai Peninsula.
The warning came from Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Othman, Cairo's representative to Ramallah, who told the Bethlehem-based Ma'an news agency that recent remarks by Jerusalem officials indicate “the presence of an Israeli plan aimed at controlling the Sinai.”
Othman added, “We should be ready for the Israeli plan to take Sinai in the coming period.”
The Egyptian envoy's remarks followed interviews by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, in which both characterized the situation in Sinai as “troubling.” Both men expressed concern over the security threats that have escalated since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in the Tahrir Square Revolution in February.
“There are those seeking to use Sinai not merely as a staging area for attacks from Gaza, but who are seeking to use Gaza as a staging area for attacks from Sinai,” Netanyahu told reporters. “This is obviously a very troubling development.” He added at the time that while both Cairo and Washington D.C. shared Jerusalem's concerns, Israel is “taking action” on its side of the border to stymie any threat.
Increased Egyptian tanks and troops in the region were approved by Israel in mid-August for the first time in decades – a strong indicator of just how deep the concern is on both sides. That concern was dramatically increased following an August 18 multi-pronged terrorist attack along the border on Route 12, slightly north of Eilat. The 20-member cell killed eight Israelis and wounded at least 40 others; in the melee, six Egyptian security officers were also killed by Israeli forces as they fired on terrorists.
Othman told Ma'an that the increased Egyptian military presence would prove more than sufficient to maintain control without Israel's intervention. But Israel's defense minister noted, although the region “is an important asset for every Egyptian leadership... I don't think that the leadership is in full control.” He added that the protesters who toppled Mubarak's government are now also engaged in a power struggle with the military council that currently leads the country.
Israel's Counter Terrorism Bureau has repeatedly warned citizens to stay out of Sinai, noting that forces hostile to Israel, and to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty are currently exploiting a security vacuum in the area.
The Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline that originates from northern Sinai was attacked last week for the sixth time since February. Three men opened fire at a pumping station near el-Arish, damaging the pipeline and sending flames shooting some 15 meters (45 feet) into the air, according to an eyewitness quoted by the Reuters news agency. El-Arish is located just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border with Israel.