Sinai peacekeeper cutback to be discussed

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Israel will discuss with close ally the US a newspaper report that US-led peacekeeping force in the Egyptian Sinai may be scaled back, calling its nearly four decade-old presence “important”.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper is pushing to pull out some American troops from the international peacekeeping force it heads in the Sinai Peninsula, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing current and former US officials.

The reduction comes as Egypt battles an Islamist insurgency in the desert peninsula, where the US-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 is important.

“The issue will be raised between us and the Americans,” said Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet.

According to its website, the MFO has 1 156 military personnel from the US and 12 other countries covering more than 10 000 square kilometres in the Sinai. Four hundred and fifty plus personnel are American.

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

During that time, Israel agreed to an easing in demilitarisation in the Sinai so Egypt can carry out anti-insurgency sweeps, typically in the northern end of the peninsula where small-scale attacks are common.

Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel while unpopular with many Egyptians, brought billions in US defence aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarisation of sovereign Sinai territory.

For the Israelis, the MFO offers strategic reassurance, recalling in 2013 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled an elected Islamist government hostile to its neighbour.