U.S. to Withdraw Troops From Sinai Peacekeeping Force Despite Israeli Opposition, Report Says

Minister says Israel to discuss 'important' military mission in the Egyptian peninsula with the Americans

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U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria in Palm Beach, Florida, December 29, 2019.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria in Palm Beach, Florida, December 29, 2019.Credit: Tom Brenner/ REUTERS

Israel said on Friday it would discuss with its closest ally the United States a Wall Street Journal report that U.S. troops may be withdrawn from an international peacekeeping force in the Egyptian Sinai, calling its nearly four-decade-old presence "important".

The move, which is being led by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is provoking opposition at the U.S. State Department and Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to officials cited by the report.

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The reduction would come as Egypt battles an Islamist insurgency in the desert peninsula, where the U.S.-led Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) has been since the early 1980s, following Egypt's peace deal with Israel in 1979.

Asked to comment on the report in an interview with Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said "the international force in Sinai is important, and [the] American participation in it is important."

"Certainly, the issue will be raised between us and the Americans," said Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet.

The U.S. and Egyptian embassies in Israel did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did the international force's office in Israel.

Recently, a series of fatal attacks against Egyptian security forces have taken place, with 10 Egyptian soldiers killed and wounded on April 30 from an improvised explosive device in the desert peninsula.

According to its website, the force has 1,156 military personnel from the United States and 12 other countries covering an area of more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) in the Sinai. Some 454 of the personnel are American.

But the size of the force has decreased by over 30 percent since 2015, according to data from its website.

U.S. security officials have said that Esper believes that the efforts of the U.S. military in northern Sinai are not implementing effective utilization of resources, or worth putting U.S. soldiers at risk in the area.

Cairo sees the international force as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, has brought it billions of dollars in U.S. defense aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarization of their sovereign Sinai territory.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks near U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a send off for the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. March 28, 2020.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

For Israel, the force offers strategic reassurance, recalling that in 2013 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi toppled an elected Islamist government hostile to its neighbor.

U.S. President Donald Trump has previously said he wants to extradite the U.S. military from conflict points in the Middle East, but in reality his administration has further cemented its presence in the region, sending about 14,000 more troops, including thousands deployed in the Persian Gulf in an attempt to deter Iran from attacking its neighbors.

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