The black hole of Sinai

Radical change among Sinai Bedouin threatens fragile peace between Israel and Egypt

Egypt Sinai with Fragile sign 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Egypt Sinai with Fragile sign 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and last year’s Egyptian revolution, the Sinai Peninsula has emerged as a new hot spot in the complex Arab-Israeli conflict, with an expanding terrorist infrastructure that makes it another front of potential confrontation.
The Bedouin are now in a position to initiate crises that neither Israel nor Egypt wants, while also influencing the struggle against Hamas. Measures are needed to prevent the total collapse of security in and around the peninsula, avoid the rise of an armed, runaway Bedouin statelet, and minimize the risk of Israeli-Egyptian peace imploding under the pressures of the wild Sinai frontier.
Despite falling under mostly nominal Egyptian control throughout much of its history, the Sinai Peninsula’s 61,000 square kilometers – almost three times the size of Israel – was never really integrated into mainland Egypt. Sparsely populated, with no more than 40,000 inhabitants recorded as late as 1947, it was traditionally neglected.
The local Bedouin, who now number over 300,000, constitute roughly 70 percent of the total population, the rest being Palestinians (10 percent), immigrants from across the Suez Canal (10 percent), and the descendants of Bosnian, Turkish and other settlers from the Ottoman period, mainly in al-Arish (10 percent).
Recently, however, Sinai has undergone rapid and dramatic change, particularly just before and after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Cairo. Its inhabitants are transforming the area into a semiautonomous player in the regional arena, with the Bedouin for the first time assuming an independent role in determining control over the peninsula and its relations with adjacent areas.
Three decades after the signing of the 1979 treaty, some Israeli military leaders believe that the 240-kilometer border with Egypt is no longer a “border of peace,” but rather a “boundary with some peace.”
The danger of a flare-up on that frontier has become a constant concern, with the added risk that local developments in Sinai could break a fragile bilateral peace that is already challenged by growing post- Mubarak demands to abrogate, review, or amend the treaty and all subsequent agreements.
In this sense, the peninsula is becoming a kind of black hole that threatens to swallow the triangle of peace between Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
Moreover, parts of Sinai are beginning to resemble an extension of the Palestinian arena, as certain groups forge close military, political, ideological and economic ties with the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Because Egyptian authorities have been hesitant in asserting control over the peninsula, Hamas has come to perceive the area as a sphere of influence, reaching out to the local population and manifesting an ever-growing confidence in its ability to obtain substantial freedom of maneuver for its activities there.
Emerging terrorist networks Recently, a growing number of terrorist networks have expanded their presence and activities throughout much of Sinai.
These networks – some clandestine, some with significant public profile – represent old smuggling gangs partly converted to terrorism, newly formed Bedouin factions adhering to Salafi jihadist doctrines, and affiliates of Palestinian organizations in Gaza, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the Dughmush clan’s Army of Islam.
Egyptian authorities have also uncovered Hizballah penetration of Sinai, capturing several members of the organization and sentencing them to as many as 15 years’ imprisonment in 2010. Yet most of these operatives managed to escape from jail during the Egyptian revolution, with cell commander Sami Shihab, a Lebanese Shiite, receiving a hero’s welcome by Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah upon his return to Beirut, in February 2011.
Analysis of the August 18 cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel, in which eight Israelis were killed and 31 injured, reveals that all 12 operatives were Sinai residents, four of them on a suicide bombing mission.
This was the first case in which Sinai operatives penetrated Israel wearing explosive belts aimed at killing Israelis. It was also the first time that shoulder antiaircraft missiles were fired from Sinai against Israeli helicopters.
The aftermath of the attack also demonstrated the severe threat that Sinai border incidents pose to Egypt’s peace with Israel.
Protesting the deaths of five Egyptian policemen during the shootout, thousands of Egyptians stormed the Israeli Embassy in Giza on September 9-10. The incident forced Israel to evacuate all diplomatic staff from Cairo for a few months amid a chorus of demands by various Egyptian politicians to close down the embassy and recall the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv.
The August attack was also a departure from the pattern established by previous Bedouin terrorist operations, which all aimed at hitting targets within Sinai rather than Israel. For example, the bloody attacks of 2004-2006 were directed against tourist resorts along the Gulf of Aqaba: Sharm al- Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba.
According to Egyptian authorities, the perpetrators of the 2004-2006 attacks were members of an underground mixed Bedouin-Palestinian organization – apparently the first terrorist movement created in the peninsula by indigenous activists – the first generation of Bedouin to actively pursue their Salafi jihadist convictions.
Prior to this dramatic shift, Sinai Bedouin were never known for religious piety.
Disengagement boost As early as 1995, shortly after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas embarked on clandestine activity in Sinai, especially among Palestinian inhabitants of the Rafah/al-Arish coastal region.
Yet the true surge in such activity came after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza and subsequent removal of troops from the Sinai-Gaza border. 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.
Sympathy and support for the Palestinian battle against Israel grew.
Even in late 2010, well before Mubarak’s ouster, Hamas was already in the process of transferring heavy long-range missiles to secret storage places in Sinai, including Grad rockets and extended range Qassams.
On October 6 of that year, the Israeli port of Eilat and its Jordanian sister town of Aqaba were hit by a salvo of missiles fired from Sinai.
The Hamas network in Sinai is also responsible for transferring arms into Gaza, most of them smuggled from Iran through Sudan into Egypt and, from there, across the Suez Canal and through the peninsula.
This flow of arms, which includes advanced Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles capable of reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv, has been supplemented by equipment smuggled from Libya, such as the fairly advanced Russian-made SA -14, SA -16 and SA -18 antiaircraft missiles, which could pose a threat to Israeli aircraft and Eilat airport.
The combination of Palestinian terrorist networks, armed Salafi jihadist Bedouin, and extensive smuggling infrastructure and activities has turned the peninsula into a safe haven for terrorists with heavy, advanced arms and wide freedom of action.
In other words, it has become a huge arms depot with hundreds – perhaps thousands – of operatives bent on fighting for their causes.
According to one Egyptian estimate, the area is now home to around 1,600 Salafi jihadist militants. Egyptian journalist Sakina Fouad aptly summarized the situation, calling Sinai “a ticking time bomb waiting to explode” (al-Tahrir, September 1, 2011).
The spread of terrorist strongholds in Sinai and the rise of well-armed tribal militias were greatly accelerated by the collapse of the Egyptian police forces throughout the peninsula during the revolution. Armed Bedouin in fleets of pickup trucks and motorbikes chased Egyptian security personnel, compelling them to abandon their bases and flee. No less than 100 people, including many policemen, were killed in clashes of January-February 2011. The Bedouin soon asserted their dominance over the North Sinai governorate.
Tribesmen also bombed the gas pipeline supplying Israel and Jordan on 10 different occasions, causing long interruptions in the flow of gas and losses conservatively estimated at half a billion Egyptian pounds ( $80 million).
Despite the increasing tensions and armed clashes, no systematic effort was ever undertaken to curb the emergence of a Bedouin parallel economy centered on smuggling and other forms of illegal trade.
By the end of 2011, the annual volume of this black economy was estimated to exceed $300 million.
The highest military echelons refuse to allow army involvement in any confrontation with the indigenous population. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has consistently and adamantly opposed such involvement, even prohibiting the army from assisting with pipeline protection in Sinai.
This attitude may help explain Egypt’s relative tolerance of the latest Bedouin business endeavor: guiding massive numbers of illegal African immigrants into Israel. At least 50,000 such immigrants, mainly Sudanese and Eritrean Muslims, are estimated to have arrived in Israel as refugees since this practice began.
The Challenge to Israel Initially, the Israeli defense establishment was ill prepared for the new situation in Sinai. Over the years, Israeli intelligence agencies have paid only limited attention to the peninsula, diverting resources to more troublesome fronts such as Gaza and Lebanon.
Over the past year, however, Israel has been compelled to conduct a thorough reassessment of the situation on the Egyptian frontier, and policy changes have quickly become evident. First, Israel gradually dropped its objections against Egyptian military deployment eastward. This process actually began in January 2008, after around half a million Palestinians stormed into Sinai from Gaza. Later, after the revolution, consent was given for the introduction of 750 Egyptian soldiers to the al- Arish/Rafah area. And in September 2011, Cairo obtained authorization to deploy seven battalions in the “forbidden zones.”
In short, Israel has essentially agreed to reverse the demilitarization of the eastern Sinai and accept a semipermanent Egyptian military presence close to its border, all in the vain hope of improving the security situation.
Second, Israel has adopted new defensive measures along its side of the border.
The most important of these is the “Sand Clock” operation, which involves accelerated construction of a 240-kilometer double fence, 5.5 meters high and extending 1.5 meters underground, to serve as a physical barrier between the two countries.
The budget for the project is estimated at 1.35 billion shekels ($350 million), though the actual cost will likely be much higher.
Once completed, the fence is expected to stop the flow of illegal immigrants,hamper large-scale smuggling, and, most important, provide an obstacle against terrorist incursions while giving local commanders enhanced early warning. So far, 70 kilometers of the fence have been built, with completion scheduled for the end of 2012.
Third, the IDF has beefed up its own deployment along the Sinai border, doubling the number of battalions from four to eight, intermittently stationing regular first-echelon units there (including the Golani infantry brigade), and establishing a new territorial brigade for Eilat and its vicinity.
At the same time, Israel has decided to stick to its longstanding policy of refraining from preemptive measures on Egyptian soil. Instead, it regularly relays intelligence obtained on Sinai terrorist activities to Egyptian authorities, who act on some of it but set the rest aside.
On the political level, the Israeli government has so far kept silent amid growing calls by Egyptian politicians, journalists, retired military figures, and former intelligence officials to abolish all restrictions on the Egyptian military presence in the peninsula, as set forth in Article 4 of the peace treaty. Most prominently, such arguments have been made by former chief of staff and current presidential candidate Gen. Magdy Hatata.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt raises additional concerns for Israel.
A government in which the Brotherhood plays a key role might allow the border to become an area of constant friction.
There is no quick fix to the problems posed by the current situation in Sinai. Remedying the tensions between Egypt and the Bedouin and curbing the rampant smuggling industry are both long-term endeavors.
A major terrorist attack from Sinai, whether by Palestinians or Bedouin, could endanger the fragile peace treaty. The same would be true if Israel were compelled to launch a preventive strike in Sinai in order to avert loss of Israeli lives. The border’s potential transformation into a zone of friction and perpetual skirmishes would certainly create a climate of renewed confrontation between the two countries, even if the Egyptian army initially refrained from direct involvement.
All parties should remain focused on the most immediate and important goals: preventing the total collapse of security in and around the peninsula, avoiding the rise of an armed, runaway Bedouin statelet, and minimizing the risk of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty imploding under the pressures of the wild Sinai frontier. •
Ehud Yaari is an Israel-based Lafer international fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 television and former associate editor of The Jerusalem Report. This article was extracted from a paper published by The Washington Institute, January 2012.