“We made it clear to Egypt that they should do something about this,” said Itzhak Levanon, who was Israel’s ambassador in Cairo until last year. “Those people were out to destroy the future relations between both countries. But they decided not to act forcefully.”
As its soldiers began facing more hostility, the MFO beefed up security measures, according to the force’s 2011 annual report. Force leaders bought armored vehicles and fortified the fences around MFO bases.
MFO officials declined a request for an interview, citing the force’s preference to keep a low profile. The task force’s commander, Maj. Gen. Warren Whiting of New Zealand, has contended that the force is performing a vital task despite the growing challenges.
“With the current uncertainty in the Middle East, the role of the MFO is even more crucial to stability in the region,” Whiting said in a statement issued in May by his country’s military to mark the 30-year anniversary of the MFO. “Since the revolution both sides are talking so much more and the main conduit is through the MFO.”
The MFO has not been the target of militant groups in recent years, diplomats said, but the emergence of new groups and attacks carried out against the force last decade during a similar terrorism campaign have caused alarm.
Two MFO members were wounded in a 2005 roadside bombing. A year later, two suicide bombers targeted MFO personnel but caused no casualties.
Little is known about the strength and identity of the handful of new militant groups that have taken root in the Sinai. One that announced its existence on Aug. 1, using the name Soldiers of Islamic Law, called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Sinai and urged Egyptian security forces to refrain from intervening in the “fighting with the Jews.”
Another group issued a statement last week saying Egyptian security forces should not get caught in the crossfire of its fight against Israel.
“We don’t want our strength to turn against you for any reason,” said the statement, attributed to al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya and translated by the Site Intelligence group.
Edgar Cely Nunez, the Colombian ambassador in Cairo, whose country has the second-largest contingent in the force, said Colombian soldiers have managed to defuse situations that could have led to violence. The Colombian group, which is in charge of security, is made up mostly of professional soldiers with vast experience, said Cely, a former military chief.
“We worry about any incident that could generate even the slightest threat to our men in the Sinai,” he said.
So far, the threat has been manageable, Cely said, and nations with troops in the Sinai remain committed to their mission.
“For both countries, it’s beneficial to have a force that can alert them to a situation that could have consequences later on,” he said.
Henry Shull contributed to this report.