Since the Egyptian Revolution more than a year ago, there has been a complete breakdown of law and order in the Sinai Peninsula, and Islamic terrorists from Egypt and Gaza have filled the vacuum. The natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel has been blown up 14 times. On the eve of Passover, several rockets were fired across the border from Sinai into Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat, as the city prepared to host thousands of visitors for the holiday.
The Israeli military says a number of terror groups are active in Sinai, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, and they are planning cross-border attacks. This poses a dilemma for Israel because it cannot freely operate in Sinai, as it would in neighboring Gaza, for fear of further harming the already fragile peace treaty with Egypt.
The Egyptian government has lost control of Sinai, and Bedouin tribes now call the shots in the desert where the children of Israel wandered for 40 years in biblical times. The Bedouin economy thrives on smuggling to Hamas-ruled Gaza.
“By the end of 2011, the annual volume of this black economy was estimated to exceed U.S. $300 million,” wrote respected Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari in a report called Sinai: A New Front, published by the Washington Institute. “The true surge in such activity came after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza and subsequent removal of troops from the Sinai-Gaza border—as Bedouin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it, ‘a fireball started rolling into the peninsula.’ Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk.”
Armed Bedouin gangs have become the law of the land. For instance, 400 Bedouins besieged the base of the UN international peacekeeping force in Sinai, known as the MFO (Multinational Force and Observers), which is supposed to enforce the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The revolt began after five Bedouins were arrested by soldiers. Yaari says the flow of arms includes missiles that can hit Tel Aviv as well as weapons smuggled from Libya, such as Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles which could pose a threat to Israeli aircraft and Eilat Airport.
“One Bedouin source estimates the overall number of weapons in the peninsula at no less than 100,000 pieces of all sorts,” he writes. So Israel has little choice but to allow Egypt to place seven additional battalions in Sinai to secure the 250-kilometer (150-mile) long border. According to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, no Egyptian troops are allowed to cross the Suez Canal and be stationed in Sinai, but the regulation was already softened last year. The risk for Israel is high because once Egyptian troops deploy in Sinai they will never leave.
Some Israeli security experts see this as a ploy by Egypt, not to keep the peace but rather to be better prepared for a war with Israel. The United States plays an important role in this situation because it alone has leverage—in the form of nearly $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt. While Islamists now control Egypt, the economy is in shambles, and the US must make it clear that allowing Sinai to become a new launching pad for terrorist attacks on Israel could threaten the financial package. “The danger of a flare-up on that frontier has become a constant concern, with the added risk that local developments in the Sinai could break a fragile bilateral peace,” writes Yaari.
The writing is on the wall. “If I had something to say, our army would already be prepared for a confrontation inSinai,” saidKnesset (parliament) member Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a former general. If anyone knows the Egyptians, then it is Ben Eliezer, who was a personal friend of toppled President Hosni Mubarak
This article is reprinted from our May 2012 magazine issue.
CLICK HERE to subscribe and never miss out on feature stories like this