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Israel allows 800 Egyptian troops into the Sinai (VIDEO)

Israel has allowed Egypt to move about 800 troops into the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the countries signed a 1979 peace treaty.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Hosni Mubarak
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak during their meeting on Jan. 6, 2011 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)

Israel has allowed Egypt to move several hundred troops into the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the countries signed a peace deal three decades ago.

As street protests in Cairo and elsewhere threatened the regime of President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday, the officials said that Israel allowed the Egyptian army to move two battalions — about 800 soldiers — into Sinai, The Associated Press reported.

The officials, on condition of anonymity because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has banned the government from discussing the situation in Egypt, said the troops were based in the Sharm el-Sheikh area on Sinai's southern tip, far from Israel.

Israel is especially concerned that Palestinian militants might take advantage of the unrest to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.

Meanwhile, Israeli president Shimon Peres said Monday that Israelis "always have had and will have great respect for President Mubarak."

"Not everything he did was right, but he did do one thing for which all of us are thankful. He was the peace keeper of the Middle East," Peres said at a welcome for the new Costa Rican ambassador in Jerusalem, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to leave the area, which borders southern Israel, demilitarized.

As the unrest in Egypt has spread, Israeli officials have grown increasingly concerned about the stability of their southern neighbor, and especially the strategic issue of its 30-year peace treaty with the largest Arab country.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly prohibited his cabinet from commenting publicly on events in Egypt, saying only that the treaty must be maintained.

But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Monday that the government was seeking to convince the United States and European Union to curb their criticism of Hosni Mubarak to preserve stability in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday urged Hosni Mubarak to allow an "orderly transition" to a "real democracy" in Egypt and said the United States wants to see free and fair elections in Egypt as a result of the antigovernment unrest.

EU foreign ministers are to discuss the situation in Egypt at a special session today in Brussels, after which they are expected to issue a statement echoing those issued in recent days by U.S. President Barack Obama and Clinton.

According to Haaretz, senior Israeli officials said Saturday night the foreign ministry had issued a directive to around a dozen key embassies in the United States, Canada, China, Russia and several European countries. The ambassadors were told to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt's stability.

Israel is also concerned about a likely future role for the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups in Egyptian politics if the system became more democratic.

Mubarak, who commanded the Egyptian air force during the 1967 defeat by Israel, inherited the 1979 peace treaty when its architect, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981.

According to the Guardian, the treaty has "neutralized" Israel's largest Arab enemy after four wars between 1948 and 1973, and provided security on its long southern border. The price was the Sinai peninsula and the destruction of a few settlements.

The treaty has survived through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian intifadas of 1987 and 2000, and the war in Gaza in 2008-09.

Meanwhile, two charter flights out of Egypt carrying over 400 Israeli citizens landed in Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday, with returning Israelis claiming that the week-long anti-governmental protests that have been sweeping Egypt were not as bad as they seemed.