Tuesday, May 18, 2004

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: The Forgotten Peacekeepers

Soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula still keep the peace between Egypt and Israel
BY KANE FARABAUGH for the Daily Times

SHARM EL SHEIK, EGYPT - Since 1948, the state of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt have fought five wars over a piece of land that is both bridge and barrier between the continents of Africa and Asia.

The Sinai Peninsula, home to Mount Sinai where it is said Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, now belongs to Egypt, but the peace between Egypt and Israel belongs, in part, to an eleven nation peacekeeping effort known as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO).
“We are NOT the U.N.,” says Joint Task Force Sinai Public Affairs officer, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Johnson.
The Treaty of Peace, signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979, divides the Sinai Peninsula into four zones (A,B,C, and D). After a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, the M-F-O stood up in 1982 to help both countries stick to the guidelines in their peace agreement.
In C Zone, the M-F-O operates dozens of outposts that monitor troop and equipment movement by both Egypt and Israel.
The unique thing about the M-F-O is that they are not in the Sinai to keep two warring factions apart… they are here to “observe, report, and follow their playbook that they agreed upon,” says Johnson.
Following the playbook can translate into very isolated duty for U.S. Army National Guard soldiers deployed to the Sinai.
On this rotation, members of the Michigan National Guard are manning some of the observation towers along the Egyptian – Israeli border and along the Red Sea. The outposts are everywhere from right along the border near the Gaza Strip, to Tiran Island at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Tiran Island is a unique outpost for the M-F-O. The U.S. Army soldiers that work here are the only people who live on the island. The only way on or off the dusty, barren piece of land is by Huey helicopter, which is also the primary means of resupplying the camp.
The outpost on Tiran is called OP 3-11. The soldier’s camp is near the southern tip of the island, and the observation tower in the camp overlooks the Red Sea.
Peering through binoculars, a U.S. Army Infantry soldier looks out to the sea, looking for anything out of the ordinary, like military jets or naval ships.
It’s not their job to determine if what they see is a violation. They’re primary focus is to follow reporting procedures up the chain of command back at one of two camps on the Sinai peninsula. Their findings are then turned over to the Egyptians and Israelis who sort out the differences together.

The mission in the Sinai has taken a back seat to bigger news elsewhere in the Middle East.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions… units that saw combat recently in Iraq and Afghanistan... used to make up the U.S. component of the M-F-O in the Sinai. The National Guard stepped in about two years ago so that active duty soldiers could be freed up for duty elsewhere in the world.
“I feel that we’re providing to the War on Terror by providing stability to this area,” says LTC Phil Owens, commander of the 1-125 Infantry Battalion from the Michigan National Guard.
“If there was another conflict between Egypt and Israel it would be very difficult for the region.”
Another flash point is located just across the Israeli – Egyptian border.
Even though some soldiers manning remote observation posts can observe conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, LTC Johnson says it has no bearing on their mission with the M-F-O.
“We’re only here to observe, report, and verify the Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel.”
The United States contributes about 16.3 million dollars a year to the M-F-O as well as an infantry battalion and support battalion. LTC Johnson sees that as a small price to pay to ensure peace in a region that is still in conflict.
“What price tag can you put on peace? It’s important that this area, the Sinai, has peace, and it’s important for the United States to be a player for peace in this region. Is 16 million dollars a lot? I can’t answer that… that’s for our leaders to ask.”
Ever since the M.F.O started it’s mission in 1982, there hasn’t been a death related to hostile action. Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than two decades as several hundred U.S. soldiers join hundreds of other soldiers from eleven different countries to ensure that peace in the Sinai continues today.