Two minuscule, bird-inhabited islands in the Straits of Tiran have become the object of a minor furor on the basis of conjecture that they could be seized by Saudi Arabia after Israeli forces withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula on April 25.
While there have been no overt threats by anyone to take control of the islands -- except the seagulls who already dwell there and the U.S.-sponsored multinational peace-keeping force that will police the demilitarized zone in the Sinai -- Israel's fiercely competitive press has seized upon the issue.
"Saudis may seize islands off Sinai," headlined one Israeli newspaper today in a front page article, which emphasized the strategic importance of the two sand spits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli radio and television picked up the theme, dredging up old fears of Arab blockades of the Straits of Tiran and reviewing in ominous tones 24-year-old Saudi territorial claims to the barren islands.
The tempest seems more illustrative of Israel's jittery mood about Saudi Arabia in general and the tempo of the freewheeling press here on a slow news day than anything else. Nevertheless, it prompted Israeli government officials to sift through long and turgid texts of the official protocols of the Sinai withdrawal and then insist that future control of the islands is spelled out very clearly in the Camp David peace accords.
"As far as we are concerned, the issue was settled long ago. The islands are clearly in the demilitarized zone, and will be controlled by the multinational force," a government spokesman said today.
The island issue first surfaced when a reserve Army general, Rehavam Zeevi, writing in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, proposed that Israel not abandon control of Sanafir and Tiran islands, since legally they belong to Saudi Arabia and not Egypt. The islands -- or, more accurately, islets -- are off the northwestern coast of Saudi Arabia.
Zeevi, former chief of the Israeli Army's central command and a former military adviser to the prime minister's office, warned that after the Sinai withdrawal, Saudi Arabia could reassert its sovereignty over the islands and use them to block the only access to the Gulf of Aqaba, thereby cutting off Israel's port of Eilat.
The Saudis first laid claim to the islands in 1949, but a year later, amidst fears of an Israeli attempt to seize the straits, signed an agreement with Egypt in which Egypt "effectively occupied" them and defended them against possible Israeli attack. They remained under Egyptian control until Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 Six-Day War and took control of the straits.
Israeli officials today said that by signing the peace treaty with Israel, and specifically including Sanafir and Tiran islands on the treaty map, Egypt asserted its sovereignty over the islands. They noted that when the treaty was signed, Saudi Arabia said nothing about the two islands.
The last Saudi assertion of sovereignty over the islands, apparently, was in 1957.
Moreover, the officials said, the islands are clearly indicated in "Zone C" of the treaty withdrawal maps, which is to be controlled by the multinational force.
"In the protocol, it clearly says that the multinational force will guarantee free navigation of the Straits of Tiran, and that, of course, includes control of the islands," an official said.
He added, "we consider Egypt as the proper address for any problems that come up on this subject."