JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel on Thursday granted an Egyptian request for Cairo to use attack helicopters in Sinai for the first time since a 1979 treaty which strictly limited the deployment of military force in the desert peninsula, a senior Israeli official said.
The decision, made by a telephone poll of Israeli ministers to hasten the process, was in effect retroactive since Egypt has already sent in the aircraft as part of its largest offensive in Sinai in 40 years, launched in response to the killing on Sunday of 16 Egyptian border guards by gunmen.
Israel’s security cabinet set a limit of several days “for a specific, pinpointed action”, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel has encouraged Egypt to take tough action against the gunmen, who also crossed into Israel in a stolen armoured vehicle before they were stopped and killed by Israeli forces.
The official said that Israel had earlier permitted Egypt to deploy more security forces in Sinai. Since Sunday’s violence, it has also urged Egypt to post commandos at Egypt’s borders with Libya and Sudan to prevent gunmen from smuggling weapons to Sinai, the official added.
The violence in Sinai has further strained Israeli ties with neighbouring Egypt since Western-backed Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year, a move that saw Islamist Mohamed Mursi go on to win the Egyptian presidency.
Egypt was the first of two Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Under that treaty, Israel withdrew from Sinai, which it captured in a 1967 war, and the area was largely demilitarised, though in recent years Israel agreed to allow Egypt to deploy more security forces there to stem weapons smuggling by Palestinian gunmen and other crimes.
In the past, Israel has not agreed to allow Egypt to use military aircraft in the desert peninsula since the treaty only permitted the limited use of surveillance or patrol aircraft in Sinai.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Andrew Osborn)