Cairo's Terror Crackdown / With Israel's Okay, Egypt Beefs Up Military Presence in Sinai Peninsula

Egyptian forces engage in effort to quell Bedouin tribes and Islamists identifying themselves with Al-Qaida.

Egypt moved nearly 2,000 soldiers into Sinai late last week in an operation aimed at bringing the peninsula under control after months marked by near anarchy in the peninsula.

The Egyptian move was coordinated in advance with Israel, since the transfer of troops into Sinai exceeds the limits set by the Camp David peace agreement between the two countries.

The Egyptian forces were brought into Sinai on Friday in an effort to quell Bedouin tribes and Islamists identifying themselves with Al-Qaida who have taken over portions of the northern peninsula and attacked police stations there during the past few weeks.

Since the downfall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in February, the Egyptian authorities' hold on Sinai has become increasingly tenuous. The natural gas pipeline connecting Egypt and Israel has been attacked multiple times, and there has been a substantial uptick in arms and other items being smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels along the Philadelphi strip near Rafah.

Israel and the United States reportedly asked the Supreme Military Council, which currently holds power in Egypt, to take action to prevent further attacks on the gas pipeline, and to put down radical Islamist activities in Sinai.

The military reinforcements are said to be part of a military operation, named Operation Eagle, to track down those behind the attacks.

In July, five people were killed when dozens of gunmen tried to storm a police station in el-Arish. The gunmen and hundreds more, reported to be Islamists, were wearing black and carrying black flags reading "There is no God but Allah."

Egypt's military has detained 15 people suspected of involvement in clashes between gunmen and police in northern Sinai, including 10 Palestinians.

Following the attack, flyers were distributed in the peninsula, threatening more attacks on police. The flyers were signed "Al-Qaida in Sinai." According to reports from Egypt, the force brought into Sinai numbers about 2,000 soldiers from the Second Infantry Division, supported by tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The governor of northern Sinai, Abdel Wahad Mabrouk, said that "the security deployment is purely for defensive purposes."

Amos Gilad, director of policy and political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry, traveled to Egypt yesterday for a few hours of discussions with Egyptian officials. Among the subjects on the agenda was the security operation in the Sinai, as well as Palestinian reconciliation talks, and the case of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza.

The Camp David between Israel and Egypt agreement restricts the movement of troops and armored vehicles into Sinai, but a senior Israeli security source explained that permission was granted because it is "clearly in Israel's security interest."

The move marks the second time since Mubarak's fall that Israel agreed to allow its neighbor to reinforce its security presence in the peninsula.

In addition to the attacks on the police station in el-Arish, three powerful Bedouin tribes in the northern peninsula have been active in smuggling activities with nearly no opposition.

Last night, some 1,000 troops and police, reinforced by armored vehicles, arrived at el-Arish. Several weeks ago, following the fourth attack on the gas pipeline, Egypt stepped up security significantly, but the troop movement signals a new stage in Cairo's fight to regain control of the peninsula.

The security operations are due to begin in the coming days, with the aim of sending out a clear message that Egypt considers the security of the gas pipeline as part of its commitment to maintaining the agreement with Israel.

Senior Egyptian officials who gave interviews in recent weeks to the Egyptian media made it clear that Cairo has the right to raise the issue of the price, which many in Egypt feel is too low, but does not intend to cancel the agreement or any agreement that the state has signed with Israel.

The arrival of Egyptian security forces has led dozens of wanted men to flee to the lawless area of Jabal al-Halal, in central Sinai. Security forces have had problems controling the area in the past, making it a haven for fugitives.

Six years ago, Egypt tried to counter the armed activities of Bedouin and radical groups, with mass arrests, however, this led to friction between the approximately 360,000 Bedouin in Sinai and the authorities.

At the time, the Egyptian authorities claimed that the operations were targeting Al-Qaida, but many Bedouin said that the government was mistreating them and refusing to treat them as equal citizens.

Anshel Pfeffer and agencies contributed to this report.