The Struggle for the Sinai: Israel, Egypt and Regional Stability

Death in the Sinai

 On 5 August 2012, Islamist gunmen attacked an Egyptian police station at Rafah, in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israeli-Egyptian border at Gaza, only days after a new government was sworn in. The incident killed 16 Egyptian policemen and an army tank was seized. At first there was confusion as to the perpetrators as fingers were pointed to actors across the region. Initially, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael B. Oren, blamed the attack on Iran via Twitter, drawing a connection to an earlier attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Then, Oren’s claims were retracted and the next day, Defence Minister Ehud Barak blamed an affiliate of Al-Qaeda with an agenda of “global jihad.” The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood accused Mossad of sabotage and for the loss of life. It is particularly significant that earlier on 5 August, Israel launched an airstrike against a Palestinian gunman in south Gaza, though the connection between these two incidents is vague.

The reaction to this incident was swift on both sides of the border. With the help of the home intelligence services, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reinforced the border and retaliated against attempted infiltrations. For Egypt, Barak stated, “the terrorists’ actions again show the need for determined Egyptian action to impose security and prevent terror in Sinai.” That is exactly the response Israel received. Despite worries about a danger to Israeli-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as the latter’s successor, the new president took swift action. He gained Israel’s permission to militarize the Sinai, and launched a series of air strikes against Islamic militants on the peninsula. Moreover, he sacked a number of top security officials, including the intelligence chief as well as the governor of North Sinai. There are reports of continued raids by the military against the mostly Bedouin jihadists.

The coffins of the 16 Egyptian policemen tragically killed in an attack near Rafah on 5 August. President Morsi has ordered a crackdown on extremist elements in the impoverished Sinai.

Implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations

The 1979 peace treaty has been a cornerstone of stability in the region. No one should forget that the Sinai had always been the most violent front of the Arab-Israeli conflict before Begin and Sadat signed the Camp David Accords in 1978. While this past week provided the greatest test in three decades to the peace treaty, it was successfully upheld. The jihadists have now made themselves a common enemy of both countries. For Egypt, the attack on its police represents a blow against the country’s sovereignty, which is unacceptable to the military but most of all to the newly elected president. For Israel, its leaders will waste no time in attacking anyone related to militant Islam near Gaza, especially Salafist Jihadist groups, which regard Hamas as too moderate. In fact, this attack may make the progression of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty a concrete reality. As the need for order in the Sinai becomes more urgent to both countries, Israel’s leaders may be open to amending the clause of the treaty that prohibits militarization of the Sinai, so long as Egyptian military presence is utilized to clamp down on terrorism.

Morsi’s challenge

It is important to note that this attack was a direct challenge to Morsi. After half a century of Egyptian government repression of Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brothers, there is an expectation among these radical elements that the government would pursue an anti-Israel policy. Morsi met this challenge and he treads a fine line between his dual status as a Muslim Brother and as a national statesman. For now, after appointing a new government, his foremost priority is his national role as it builds his authority and legitimacy vis-à-vis Field Marshal Tantawi and the military, whose handling of the Sinai has not been impressive. Forcing the retirement of Tantawi and General Sami Anan for the security failures of last week, is an inextricable part of this goal. Furthermore, the new government has slowed down a rapprochement with Hamas as it closed the newly opened Rafah crossing and shut down some of the 1,200 underground tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza that has undermined the Israeli blockade.

In order to maintain authority, Morsi must succeed where his predecessors have failed and integrate the Sinai with the rest of Egypt. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz describe the Sinai as “a no-man’s land, a failed state that serves as fertile ground for ultra-extremist groups.” Former security officials under the Mubarak regime smuggled arms into the peninsula from Israel and Libya and introduced this very profitable trade to Bedouin tribes. While before, most of these arms flowed into Gaza, jihadist groups are attempting to amass weapons in order to perpetrate attacks such as the one on August 5th. As Morsi pursues public sector reform, tackling inflation and unemployment while ensuring social safety net, the Sinai cannot be forgotten. Continued Bedouin belief in its exclusion from oil and tourism revenues topped with systemic discrimination, will only worsen the situation. Tackling Bedouin poverty is the surest way to deal with these security threats, and there must be agreement between Egypt’s civilian and military leadership on this issue.

The danger of Israel’s insecurity

The significance of the Sinai for Israel’s leaders is based on two pertinent factors. The first of which is the isolation of Gaza. The presence of jihadist groups, some that move across the porous border between Gaza and the Sinai are troubling for Israel. The Jewish state in turn wants Egypt’s aid in preventing the Sinai from becoming a terrorist hub right at its border.

Secondly, strategic depth is a fundamental issue for Israel’s insecurities. If stability in the Sinai cannot be guaranteed, a pillar of the 1979 peace treaty would be in danger— as the demilitarized zone gives Israel a sense of security. The outcome of the October 1973 War relied heavily on Israel occupying the Sinai, which allowed it to use the vast desert to absorb the Egyptian attack. Were the Sinai to spin out of control, the consequences for Israeli-Egyptian relations would be troublesome, as Israel’s need for security and Egyptian sovereignty would clash. Even though Morsi continues to take action against extremists in the Sinai, Israel is growing increasingly nervous as the new president moves against the trusted Egyptian defence establishment while keeping bilateral relations at a distance.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak with Field Marshal Tantawi: Israel is growing nervous as its allies in the Egyptian military are shown the door.

Moreover, current insecurity relating to the Sinai also holds implications for Israel’s other borders. In such a case, the Golan Heights, indispensible high ground on which Israel can see as far as Iraq, is non-negotiable, reinforced by uncertainty in Syria. On the Lebanese border, with Hezbollah’s 2006 rocket attacks fresh in mind and Beirut’s similarly uncertain future with Syria’s disintegration, Israel could undertake action there as well. On top of all of this is Israel’s desire to break the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis and insecure borders on potentially hot fronts will not be part of the strategy—but may become a persistent pain.

For now, stability rests on the ability of Egypt and Israel to work together on security in the Sinai. This is necessary to maintain a cornerstone of peace in the Middle East, and to avoid the repetition of the worst scenes in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

 

About Justin Lau

Justin Lau is Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. He is pursuing his undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom where he specializes in the international history of East Asia and the Middle East.