Egypt has accused Israel of violating the 1982 agreement governing the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula by maintaining a police or military presence at three of the 15 disputed points along the border between the countries.
It was not clear why Egyptian officials decided to make their protest public at this time. The dispute, however, is symptomatic of the continuing low state of relations between the two countries, which signed a peace treaty in 1979. Egypt recalled its ambassador for "consultations" after the Beirut massacre last fall and has not sent him back, although officials now say a new ambassador will be named soon.
According to senior officials here, Egypt formally protested the Israeli presence at the border points in notes sent to the Israelis on April 5 and April 30.
Reached in Jerusalem, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official conceded that Israeli police or soldiers are occupying the three points. But he argued that this did not constitute a violation of the withdrawal agreement because of Egypt's failure to agree to procedures for the stationing of soldiers from the Sinai Multinational Force at the disputed border points.
He said that in the absence of a Multinational Force presence Israel had no choice but to station its own troops at those border points most likely to be used by guerrillas attempting to infiltrate into Israel.
The Egyptians also complained that Israeli planes using two new air bases in the Negev Desert routinely violate Egyptian airspace over the Sinai. The Israeli official replied that these airspace incursions have been accidental and are becoming less frequent as Israeli pilots become more accustomed to using the new bases.
In interviews, both Egyptian officials and western diplomats said that while the peace treaty appears secure, there is very little positive being accomplished in Egyptian-Israeli relations.
"There is no warmth," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said. "They haven't used the relationship as something to help us and them. They have used it to isolate Egypt from the Arab world. They haven't done anything to make the Egyptians happy."
Under terms of the peace treaty, Israel withdrew from the last portions of the Sinai it still held in April 1982. But this final withdrawal left 15 border points, some involving only a few yards of land, in dispute.
The most important of the 15 disputed points involves several hundred yards of land at Taba just outside the Israeli city of Eilat. Since the withdrawal, the Israelis have completed construction of, and begun to operate, a luxury hotel on the site.
The other two points, one involving just a few feet of land and the other more than a mile of disputed territory, are in the central Sinai, where the Israelis say they have recently encountered instances of land mines being planted in Israel.
The presence of the Israelis at the disputed points was discovered March 10 during a joint inspection tour by Israeli, Egyptian and Multinational Force officials. The Egyptians said they complained orally before sending the first formal note of protest less than a month later.
According to the Israeli Defense Ministry official, the withdrawal agreement calls on Israel and Egypt to establish ground rules for stationing Multinational Force troops at the 15 disputed points. He said last winter the United States suggested rules, which Israel agreed to but Egypt turned down.
The official said Israel has replied to the first Egyptian protest note and will soon respond to the second. But he gave no indication of Israeli willingness to leave the three points unless the Multinational Force is stationed at them.
Egyptian officials said they have been reluctant to speak publicly about the Israeli presence at the border points for fear of arousing public opinion in Egypt.
One reason the Egyptians may have decided to make their complaints public now is to raise the border issue openly before the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel. The ambassador, Saad Mortada, has reached retirement age since his recall last fall. But Egyptian officials said they are selecting a permanent replacement and expect to have a new ambassador in Tel Aviv within a few months.