An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R).
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Two thousand Egyptian troops are currently fighting to take back the northern
Sinai desert, which Bedouin networks have ruled with impunity since the Camp
David Accords demilitarized the territory in 1979. As Egypt’s post-Mubarak
government flexes its sovereign muscles, Israel hopes the troops will disrupt
illegal drug and weapons trade to Gaza and end attacks on a gas pipeline that
links the two countries.
All of this geopolitical strategizing – and its
corresponding news coverage – has ignored an essential aspect of Sinai
lawlessness that must be addressed: human trafficking. The current military
presence combined with the wealth of information about smuggling represent an
opportunity for both Egypt and Israel to further cripple Sinai anarchy while
gaining a huge humanitarian victory in the process.
Over the past several
years, African migrants fleeing oppression in Eritrea and genocide in Sudan have
made their way to Israel via the Sinai desert. Previous destinations for asylum
seekers, such as Libya, are no longer as viable. With demand for smuggling to
Israel on the rise, criminal rings of smugglers working in Ethiopia, Sudan,
Egypt and Israel have crafted an intricate system of extortion.
of victims report being held hostage in torture camps where they experienced
months of harsh physical abuse and repeated sexual assault. Testimonies to human
rights groups in both Cairo and Tel Aviv tell of systematic rape, burning,
prodding, hanging, starvation, deprivation of water and other extreme methods.
Many were tortured as smugglers called friends and relatives in the hopes that
their loved ones’ screams would expedite the transfer of thousands of dollars to
the traffickers via a welldeveloped illicit network.
Over 35,000 African
asylum seekers have made the journey through the Sinai to Israel. An
average of 650 people are crossing the border each month, many of whom were
subjected to torture and rape for large ransoms paid to Beduin traffickers. This
amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard currency that leaders of
criminal smuggling rings can use to further their activities – which include
smuggling of weapons, drugs, commodities and people. It is important to note
that most Beduin are not involved in the smuggling trade and are just struggling
to survive in a territory dominated by mafiastyle rule. However, Israel and
Egypt must not underestimate the role this lucrative and growing trade in
persons plays in Sinai’s prospering black market economy.
Egyptian and Israeli human rights organizations have interviewed hundreds of
victims, compiling and passing on to the relevant authorities the names, phone
numbers and locations of many smugglers. Bolstered Egyptian military
forces should use this opportunity to arrest human traffickers and liberate the
torture camps. An end to this aspect of Sinai lawlessness would be a significant
blow to the smuggler economy and would save hundreds of lives along the
way.The writer is a researcher at the Feinstein International Center,