Tens of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators were expected to take to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on Friday to protest against Israel after last week's killing of five Egyptian soldiers in cross-border violence with Israeli forces along the Sinai border. Organizers were calling for a "'million-man march" on the Israeli embassy, the scene of daily protests and rallies, which some have compared to a mini-Tahrir Square. Friday's rally is expected to be large, as it comes on the last Friday of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting.
The protesters are calling on Egypt to ditch its two-decade peace treaty with Israel and to expel the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, Yitzhak Levanon, and return Egypt's ambassador in Tel Aviv. Acting ambassador Shlomo Cohen met with senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials in Cairo on Thursday night to discuss deteriorating ties between Israel and Egypt, Israel Radio reported.
Demonstrations in Cairo were scheduled to take place in front of the Israeli Embassy there and at Tahrir Square, which became famous after a wave of protests there brought down then-President Hosni Mubarak. On Tuesday, Egyptian security forces guarding the Israeli ambassador's residence in Cairo succumbed to pressure by hundreds of protesters and took down the Israeli flag. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's demand that Egypt reinstate the flag have not been answered, and as of Friday afternoon, an Egyptian flag was still flying over the Israel embassy building, Israel Radio reported.
Friday's mass march adds to the heightened tensions between Israel and Egypt following the killing of the five Egyptian soldiers at the Sinai border during an Israel Defense Forces chase after the terrorists behind last week's deadly attack near Eilat. The coordinated, multi-pronged attack, in which terrorists infiltrated southern Israel from the Sinai Peninsula and then fled back into Egyptian territory, left eight Israelis dead, dozens wounded, and led to an aggressive Israeli response on terror leaders in the Gaza Strip.
In what appear to be attempts to reduce tensions with Egypt, while also addressing the worsening security situation in the Sinai, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Economist in an interview published on Friday that Israel would agree to let Egypt station thousands of soldiers in the Sinai following last week's cross-border attacks.
“Sometimes you have to subordinate strategic considerations to tactical needs,” Barak told The Economist.
Barak said he would agree to the deployment of soldiers and that the Egyptians would be able to "have helicopters and armored vehicles, but no tanks beyond the lone battalion already stationed there." The new deployment, if it happens, will require modifications of the Egypt-Israel peace accord, which stipulates that the Sinai Peninsula remain a demilitarized zone, with precise and limited numbers of Egyptian forces and the types of weapons they are allowed to bear. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, increased lawlessness in the Sinai has seen a gas pipeline attacked five times, and major attacks by Islamists associated with al-Qaida and Hamas against Egyptian police stations. Last week, Egyptian media reported that a high-level military delegation met with Bedouin chiefs in the Sinai to discuss the increasing anarchy there, and the growing presence of terror groups. The Egyptian military, according to reports, informed the Bedouin chiefs that the army was preparing to embark on a major military offensive to restore Cairo's control over the Sinai, as well as deal a blow to smuggling tunnels under the Sinai-Gaza border.
In response to Barak's announcement of allowing increased Egyptian forces into the Sinai, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Friday instructed Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon to examine whether deployment of the Egyptian troops in the Sinai required initial approval of the Knesset.
Rivlin said the Sinai Peninsula was a demilitarized zone as laid out in the peace treaty with Egypt, and was quoted by Army Radio as saying, "It is not enough that an agreement has been reached between the defense minister and prime minister, without the approval of the government. The Knesset's approval is needed before making any changes to political agreements."
Barak's comments to The Economist come a day after National Security Adviser Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror said Israel was prepared to hold a joint investigation with Egypt into last week's incident, in which two Israeli servicemen were also killed.
According to a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office on Thursday, Amidror said that the terms of the investigation would be determined soon by the armies of both countries.
To this end, the head of the IDF's General Staff's Planning Branch Amir Eshel was dispatched to Cairo earlier this week to present the IDF's initial findings into last Thursday's cross-border incident, as well as to coordinate the joint probe. Some reports in Israel indicated this week that the Palestinian terror squad that carried out the attacks near Eilat had spent a whole month in the Sinai preparing for their attack.
Meanwhile, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby on Friday was quoted by Israel Radio as telling Al Arabiya that "the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is not holy and that it is not the Koran or the Bible."
Elaraby was quoted as saying that if one party violated the peace agreement, the other side had the responsibility to warn the transgressor and even to change or cancel the agreement. He added that under Mubarak's rule, Israel had violated the peace deal, and no one commented on it.