TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel issued an unusually blunt warning on Wednesday against proposals to restructure the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in the insurgency-wracked Egyptian Sinai next door, saying any drawdown of the foreign troops would “reward terrorism”.
Installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) and some of its 12 contributor countries have been quietly mulling reviews of the deployment and mandate.
They worry for the safety of the almost 1,900 peacekeepers after six were wounded in September by a roadside bomb, and argue dismantling more remote and vulnerable posts would not significantly set back the mission.
With the review proposals on the agenda for MFO talks that opened with Israel, Egypt and the United States in Rome on Wednesday, a senior Israeli military officer played down the danger to the peacekeepers from the insurgents - including “Sinai Province”, the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State.
“They are not interested in attacking the MFO. If they were interested, they could be killing them every day,” the officer told Reuters on condition of anonymity, echoing MFO staff who believe the roadside bomb was intended for the Egyptian army.
But any dismantling of MFO positions, the Israeli officer said, would risk emboldening harder-line insurgent elements.
“It would reward terrorism,” the officer said. “The fact that they would look and see that the ‘Crusaders’ there are afraid - this would be powerful for the terrorists. (It) can encourage them to be more jihadi.”
The officer said the MFO had removed peacekeepers from two Sinai observation outposts after the roadside bombing and had yet to return to them - something Israel would raise objections to at the Rome talks, which conclude on Thursday.
An MFO official confirmed the two positions had been vacated, and declined to comment further on the Rome meeting except to say: “We will, as always, hear out our partners in Israel, Egypt and the United States.”
An Egyptian diplomat said Cairo, like Israel, regarded the MFO as “essential” and opposed any reduction of peacekeepers.
Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Andrew Roche