The Middle East is packed with the military forces of states and organizations. They are all preparing to kill and prevent killing. Only one force, the size of a brigade, numbering 1,662 officers and soldiers, is there for a single practical purpose - wearily waiting for a man to die.
That's the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai (and in a narrow strip east of the Israel-Egypt border ), which is always headed by an American director general, today the retired ambassador David Satterfield. His commander is always non-American. This year the force's commander is a general from New Zealand, who replaced a general from Norway.
The force has been posted there for 28 years to supervise the security annex of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The MFO is not overly occupied. It has three infantry battalions - from Fiji in the north; from Colombia in the center; and in Sharm el-Sheikh, preserving maritime freedom in the Straits of Tiran in the south, rotating reserve U.S. National Guard battalions, this year from Kansas.
Each side earmarks millions of dollars a year to maintain the force and other states contribute money, equipment and observers.
There is no disputing the importance of the peace between Israel and Egypt, even if part of the price is maintaining a superfluous buffer force. It's better than maintaining regular divisions or reaching a tense encounter between armies that could deteriorate to a confrontation. There is no guarantee the old hostility between Egypt and Israel will not flare up again.
But the circumstances surrounding deploying the force in 1982 have changed, almost unrecognizably. The Egyptian commitment to peace and to avoid bringing large armored, mechanized forces into Sinai has no real validity with Hamas ruling Gaza. After the IDF left Gaza and the settlements, the security annex was updated so Egypt could reinforce its border patrol units in Rafah. Since then, the Egyptians have been operating in this area according to their considerations, mostly at Israel's request and on the basis of provided intel.
Rafah's underground sieve, Hamas' import-export tunnel network, has not been blocked.
Today, Hamas does as it sees fit in Sinai, with the cooperation of local Bedouin, whom the Egyptians avoid confronting. Squads set out for Sinai from south Gaza with weapons and rockets and try to enter the Negev from the desert, to shell Eilat or attack Israelis on the coastal strip west of Taba.
Blocking them is a mission of the Shin Bet (which realized that if it didn't gather intel, no one, not even Military Intelligence, will do it ), the IDF and the Border Police. It's what the Border Police do, so the Southern Command and chief of staff's desire to dismantle the Arava Border Police in exchange for another colonel's position is inexplicable.
The Sinai desert is to Hamas-Gaza what the Lebanon Valley is to Hezbollah in south Lebanon - an operative, logistic hinterland. And as UNIFIL is ineffective against the threatening infrastructure from the north, so the MFO in Sinai does not act against the new threat to security and peace in the south. It is fortifying itself in its positions, priding itself on its armored pickup trucks and bracing for attack, especially in the Fiji battalion sector bordering on Gaza, but also along all Sinai's roads.
The force avoids fighting Hamas but Hamas does not promise not to fight it. Protecting the force is thus one of Satterfield (who is posted in Rome ) and his officers' top priorities. They are there to defend themselves, not to risk being hit by a bomb, volley or anti-tank missile.
The only benefit to Israel in having the MFO is in waiting for the leadership crisis at the end of Hosni Mubarak's era. The event is dubbed by Israel's government "Havatzelet," meaning the death of a ruler either by natural causes or by an assassin's bullets. Only after the new government establishes itself will it transpire whether, like Mubarak after Anwar Sadat, it will preserve the peace and the demilitarized strip in Sinai.
This crisis is expected within the next five years, perhaps already next year. When it passes, Israel should reexamine whether there is any point in maintaining, with Israeli and world contributions, a sluggish brigade like the "Havatzelet" guard.