Egypt’s deal with Israel to permanently station troops along a troubled stretch of their border in the Sinai Peninsula represents a qualitative leap in relations that caps years of growing security co-operation between the former foes, analysts say.
The deal is an amendment of the security section of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that regulates the number of troops and type of equipment Egyptian troops can have in the Sinai Peninsula, the main theatre of military operations in the three full-fledged wars the two fought between 1948 and 1973.
Only policemen with light arms are allowed in the section of Sinai bordering Israel and the Gaza strip, according to the treaty.
The analysts say the deal was the fruition of years of negotiations between the two nations that were successfully concluded when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in September, the first public meeting between leaders of the two countries in more than a decade.
The deal, according to the analysts, enshrines what has been the case on the ground for years but on an ad hoc basis. Israel has in recent years allowed Egypt on a case-by-case basis the deployment of troops, armour and air assets to use against militants fighting security forces in Sinai’s north-eastern corner.
The enhanced Egyptian security presence there also resulted in the curtailment of activity by arms and human traffickers as well as denying Egyptian extremists a safe haven in Gaza, which has since 2007 been ruled by the militant Hamas group.
“It is the first time in nearly five decades that we have troops permanently deployed along the border with Israel,” said military analyst Sameer Farag, a retired army general and a veteran of the 1973 Mideast war.
“It was President El Sisi who negotiated this deal; and Israel agreed because its plate is full facing off with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Egypt’s military announced the deal on Monday, saying it was part of efforts to safeguard the country’s national security and secure the border in the “strategic” north-eastern corner of Sinai.
“The joint (Egyptian-Israeli) military committee has succeeded through a co-ordination meeting with the Israeli side to amend the security agreement to increase the number of border guards and their capabilities on the border area at Rafah,” Egypt’s chief military spokesman wrote on his Facebook page on Monday.
“This comes in the context of an international agreement; and reinforces the foundations of security to deal with changes and variables.”
Neither Egypt nor Israel have disclosed the number of troops that would be deployed on the Egyptian side of the border or the military hardware they will have.
But the deal was widely viewed in Egypt as a milestone in relations with Israel and a diplomatic success.
“The agreement is clearly overdue but remains a monumental event. It’s very rare in international law to see a valid treaty being amended,” said Gehad Auda, a political science professor at Egypt’s Helwan university.
Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but relations between the two nations had for years been branded a “cold peace” because of the scarcity of contact between the two peoples.
However, security co-ordination between the two has grown steadily closer in recent years, mostly in the fight against Islamic militants.
Relations became warmer on other fronts, too.
Israel in September lifted a cap of 1,200 Israelis allowed daily to go through its Taba border crossing into Egypt’s Sinai; its beaches and pristine and marine life-rich Red Sea waters have traditionally attracted Israeli tourists.
Last month, Egypt authorised its national carrier to fly to Israel after decades in which the government used Air Sinai, a subsidiary of EgyptAir, to fly unmarked aircraft between Cairo and Ben Gurion Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.