Egypt halts Sinai anti-terror campaign, will open talks with Bedouin
While military campaign has been frozen, Egypt's army continues demolishing tunnels near Rafah border with Gaza; 120 tunnels destroyed thus far, according to some estimates.
Egypt's army has suspended the operation it has been conducting over the past three weeks throughout the Sinai peninsula.
News of the military campaign's cessation was reported Tuesday by Egyptian media outlets. During the operation, Egyptian troops tried to bear down on Islamic terror groups in northern areas of Sinai, particularly in El Arish and the Sheikh Zuweid locales.
According to these media reports, the military campaign has been halted as a result of discussions in recent days between Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and delegates of the radical Islamic organizations.
While the military operation in Sinai has been frozen, Egyptian army activity around the tunnels at the Rafah border continues. According to the reports, the Egyptian army is utilizing engineering equipment to destroy tunnels that cross between the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of Rafah.
Tunnels in open areas or agricultural areas on the Palestinian side are apparently not being monitored by Hamas authorities. Various estimates maintain that Egyptian forces have destroyed about 120 such tunnels out of some 1,200.
Egyptian media outlets reported that a delegation representing Morsi met last Saturday with delegates of radical Salafi organizations that operate in Sinai. The discussion's goal was to bring a halt to violent clashes between the army and armed Islamic groups. Egyptian newspaper reports disclose that the meetings were held in two mosques in the Sheikh Zuweid township, and that they resulted in an agreement for a week-long truce, along with accords for prisoner releases.
However, one of these newspapers, Al-Masry al-Youm, quoted a top security source who claimed that the military operation has not been curtailed, and that Egyptian forces continue to wage the fight against terror groups.
Egyptian media outlets report that a top Morsi adviser is expected to arrive in the Sinai and meet with delegates from the Salafi organizations, the goal being to forge a formal discussion framework between the sides. An Egyptian security source who has taken part in the Sinai contacts says the negotiations started when a senior Egyptian security official visited Sinai and worked out an agreement for a 48-hour ceasefire.
The Egyptian army operation started as a result of a terror strike carried out three-and-a-half weeks ago which left 17 Egyptian soldiers dead. Reports of contacts between Morsi's aides and the jihadi organizations seem surprising, in view of the Egyptian president's pledge to crack down on these groups and punish parties responsible for the lethal terror strike.
It could be that Morsi and his associates believe the current military campaign has exhausted itself. Most of the armed extremists have fled to the Jabal al-Halal area, a mountainous, treacherous region. Egyptian security officials believe a crackdown on terrorists in the Jabal al-Halal area would result in a number of casualties in the army.
Morsi has thus far notched a number of accomplishments in this military campaign. In the arena of public opinion, he has burnished a reputation as a tough fighter against terror and an enemy of radical Islamic groups.
Second, the army has damaged a portion of the terror infrastructure on the Sinai peninsula and has delivered a threatening message to local Bedouin, compelling them to cooperate with state troops and officials.
Third, Morsi deployed army troops in the Sinai without prior coordination with Israel, and is likely to use this precedent as evidence of his lack of fears about a possible showdown with Israel. Fourth, Morsi used the terror attack in the Sinai as a pretext to expel top army officers whom he considered a threat to his power base.
Israeli officials on Tuesday found it hard to assess the authenticity of reports of the freeze in the Egyptian army campaign. The issue of future relations with Egypt has claimed a large portion of the Israel Defense Force's intelligence branch's annual assessment; this intelligence report was discussed on Monday by the IDF General Staff.
Security officials believe that up to now, the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has exerted a restraining influence on Hamas activity in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Israeli officials are concerned that in the event of a future conflagration with Palestinian terror organizations in Gaza, Egypt's government will respond by pressuring Israel - for instance, by deploying large army concentrations in border areas, in contravention of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Morsi is expected to make an official visit to the United States in September. Asked recently whether the election results in the November 6 U.S. presidential elections might affect economic assistance received by his country, Morsi replied: "Egypt relates to the United States as a stable entity and we don't comment about this or that personality."