Ariel SharonIsrael Radio reported today that Egypt has agreed to a proposal by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, presently visiting Cairo, that would allow Israel to remove structures and equipment from northern Sinai after the region is formally returned to Egypt next April 26. Under terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, all Israeli civilians must be out of the area by the time Israel makes its final withdrawal.

If the report is confirmed, the government would be relieved of the immediate problem of dismantling installations and equipment in the face of resistance from militant settlers and squatters who are trying to block withdrawal from Sinai. In order to avoid a possibly violent confrontation, the government agreed last week to halt the dismantling process.

An Egyptian concession on this matter would allow the government to wait until the settlers and squatters have been removed before resuming the work. Sharon has made other proposals, though none in the form of an ultimatum, according to Israeli reporters accompanying the Defense Minister. The most important of these, from Israel’s security viewpoint, is to have the Sinai international peacekeeping force patrol the islands of Tiran and Sinafir in the Straits of Tiran after they are evacuated by Israel. The islands, commanding access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli port of Eilat, belonged to Saudi Arabia and were ceded to Egypt before Israel captured them in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel fears that Saudi Arabia will insist on their return once Egypt regains control and that the Egyptians might accede. The islands are included on the maps of Sinai affixed to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But they are not specifically named in the zone to be patrolled by the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), after Israel’s withdrawal. The Israelis believe this may have been an oversight. So far, the Egyptians have insisted that they would patrol the islands, noting that the MFO areas apply only to the Sinai mainland.

Sharon has also suggested that the town of Rafah, which lies astride the old international boundary between Israel and Egypt, be designated either a part of Sinai or a part of the Gaza Strip. He said this was the only practical and “humane” way to deal with the problem since the boundary line runs through houses, making some rooms part of Egypt and others part of the Gaza Strip which is controlled by Israel. He said if the Egyptians do not agree to his proposal, houses and streets would have to be divided by a wall to prevent smuggling and infiltration.