Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Reuters

In the face of heavy protest, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday defended his transfer of sovereignty for two strategic islands in the Red Sea over to Saudi Arabia, which took place Saturday.

In a TV address, al-Sisi said Egypt did not give up territory but rather "restored" the rights of Saudi Arabia to the islands, reports Associated Press.

The two islands, Sanafir and Tiran, are located off the coast of Eilat, Israel's southernmost port city. The two islands provide Israel's only access to the port of Aqaba. Egyptian blockage of the passage in 1967 was one of the reasons Israel was forced to launch the Six Day War.

Prior to the Six Day War, Saudi Arabia asked Egypt to protect the islands from Israel way back in 1950. Under the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel handed the islands back to Egypt.

On Monday night Haaretz reported that Egypt informed Israel in advance of the sovereignty transfer, and in response Israel made clear that it doesn't oppose the move as long as Israeli ships are guaranteed freedom of navigation in the area, and as long the rest of the commitments Egypt made as part of the peace agreement with Israel are honored.

Egypt confirmed to Israel and the United States that the treaty will indeed be honored, and the Saudi government later made a public announcement to that effect. 

In recent years, Israel has eased some of the 1979 treaty's limits on forces permitted in the Sinai, allowing Egypt to send in troops as it fights the ongoing terrorist insurgency in the Peninsula.

In 2013, for instance, Egypt sent in more troops, with Israel's agreement, to cope with unrest after Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was toppled as Egypt's president.

And last December, it was reported that Egyptian Air Force planes had crossed into Israeli airspace as part of Egypt's military campaign against the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS).

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