This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily
(www.jewishideasdaily.com), and is reprinted with permission.
The Sinai Peninsula is known for its stillness. But amid the timeless
mountains and endless dunes, the great crossroad between Africa and Asia is more
active today, and potentially more explosive, than at any time in its
Egypt’s “Mexico” Problem, writes Abigail Hauslohner of Time
Governor Mourad Mwafi likens the Egypt-Gaza border to the US-Mexican border, and
his security challenges to US terrorism challenges.
Lawless” writes BBC News. “I feel we are going toward a civil war here in
Sinai,” said one Beduin man.
In July, the natural-gas pipeline across the
Sinai from Egypt was blown up for the fifth time this year, causing major
disruptions to both the Israeli and Jordanian economies. Unidentified gunmen
also attacked a police station in the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, leaving
five dead. Egyptian authorities claimed the attackers were waving black flags
and carrying copies of the Koran.
This surging unrest has serious
implications for Israel, and not just because of the hundreds of thousands of
Israeli tourists traveling each year to Sinai in spite of warnings of possible
terrorist attacks. The Egyptian authorities and some outside observers
periodically attribute the escalating unrest to al-Qaida. Given earlier evidence
of Hezbollah squads in Sinai, and the frequent Israeli alerts imploring citizens
to return, there is little doubt that the security vacuum is allowing more
Islamist groups to operate in the region. A recent video posted by “al-Qaida of
the Sinai Peninsula” (most likely Palestinian Salafis opposed to Hamas)
demonstrates the power of the al-Qaida name, if nothing else.
unknown is how many outsiders from al-Qaida and other Islamist groups have taken
up residence in Sinai. But another great unknown is how many Sinai Beduin have
FORTY YEARS ago, Sinai Beduin numbered under 40,000. Today
the peninsula is home to between 100,000 and 200,000, along with native
Egyptians who have been resettled in the northwest area or who work at the
southern resorts, plus tens of thousands of Palestinians in northeast Sinai near
Gaza. Thousands of Africans refugees are also crossing the Sinai annually en
route to Israel.
Whatever their origins – most Beduin tribes are relative
latecomers to Sinai, having arrived between 300 and 500 years ago from Arabia or
to a lesser extent from Egypt –the Beduin typically proclaim loyalty to Egypt
(at least when in the presence of Egyptian officials).
Of course, there
are also Beduin within Israel, where many identify themselves as Palestinians –
an identity that helps them publicize their many claims against the Israeli
government. For the moment, most Sinai Beduin seem to give their loyalty
primarily to their particular tribes.
The history here is instructive.
After Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982, the region languished until the
1990s, when a series of Islamist attacks at major sites in Egypt proper, like
Luxor in the Nile Valley, cut deeply into tourism. In response, Egypt began
investing massively in tourist infrastructure, particularly at Sharm el- Sheikh
and other Red Sea resorts. Europeans streamed in for scuba diving, casinos and
beach life, and the area achieved some significance as the site of international
Local Beduin benefited from this buildup, primarily as
unskilled laborers. But systematic discrimination on the part of Egyptians kept
them from filling the ranks of the army, police or civil service as well as jobs
in the tourist establishments.
When bombings at Red Sea resorts in 2004
and 2006 killed 130 people, including Egyptians and foreign tourists –
Palestinian Islamists appear to have been responsible – thousands of Beduin were
rounded up. Further drawing Egyptian ire was the willingness of Beduin smugglers
to transport weapons to Hamas in Gaza, smuggle drugs to Israel, and engage in
human trafficking of African refugees.
In recent years, relations have
been poisoned by accusations that Egyptian security officials torture and murder
But now the Egyptian security presence has dramatically
diminished. One immediate consequence is that arms struggling across Sinai into
Gaza, a longstanding problem and an enterprise in which the Beduin have
historically played a central role, has intensified. More arms, including heavy
weapons and explosives from, allegedly, as far away as Libya have been
transported to Gaza. After the pipeline bombing in February, Egypt received
permission from Israel to modify the terms of its peace treaty and deploy two
additional army battalions in Sinai. But this has contributed little to the
region’s safety. Recent news that Beduin have been hired to guard the gas
pipeline point to another explanation for at least some of the violence: a
Looking to their own security, the Beduin are also
preparing for confrontations on all sides. To what extent are they also being
radicalized by the forces of global jihad, and attaching themselves to the
Islamists? That is still unknown. What is all too clear is that the sudden
withdrawal of Egyptian security has permitted Sinai Beduin to return openly to
the raiding, smuggling, kidnapping, protection rackets and feuding that are
their historic avocation, only temporarily suppressed by the Ottoman Turks, the
British, the Israelis and the Egyptians.
Even if they are not becoming
radicalized, Sinai Beduin have long been willing to sell their services to
Islamists, who are now ascendant throughout the post-Arab spring world. If the
teetering Egyptian economy collapses further and more Egyptians are pushed
toward Islamism, the tide will carry along more Sinai Beduin as well. This year,
Israel announced that it would build a fence along the entire 160-mile border
between the Negev and the Sinai.
But fence or no fence, that rising
southern tide is bound to imperil the security of the Jewish state.The
writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community