The situation in Sinai and Egypt-Israel relations

Issandr El Amrani writes:

The events of the last week or so in Sinai have been overshadowed by the current diplomatic rift and public outrage over Israel’s shooting of at least three Egyptian border guards a few days ago. The question of security and state legitimacy in the Sinai, the attack that killed 17 Israelis in Eilat, Israel’s latest bombing campaign in Gaza (and the Palestinian rocket fire that came in response), the border incident and the future of the the Egyptian-Israel relationship has interwoven in complex ways. But there are also distinct issues worth separating to get a better understanding of the whole.

  1. The situation in Sinai: The raid on July 29 by some 100 gunmen of the al-Arish police station was a wake-up signal to the Egyptian government about how dire the situation is in North and Central Sinai. So were media reports and calls for a “Islamic Republic of Sinai” that Salafist Jihadist organizations — most notably Takfir wal Hijra, a group calling itself after the more famous group of the 1970s but that had hitherto been a low-intensity nuisance for the authorities. The security situation in Sinai is a mixture of tribal grievances and score-settling, banditry and violent ideological activity by Jihadists. Sometimes the interaction between these is uncertain.
    The military’s unleashing of Operation Eagle, aimed at breaking up violent groups, confiscating weapons and pacifying the region, is absolutely necessary. The Egyptian state has too long tolerated tribal bending of the law in Sinai, an ambiguity it used to replace legitimacy. The price it is paying is the current chaos. The question now is how to forcefully intervene (as it should, at times using force when necessary to disarm armeg groups) while repairing relations with locals. That Sami Enan, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, is holding meetings with tribal leaders is a good first step, as is the creation of a new law for Sinai and an administrative body that will focus on its development.
    For a thorough look at this complicated situation in Sinai, including the presence of Palestinians affiliated with Muhammad Dahlan’s factions and the possibility of armed groups being manipulated by regional powers, you could do no better than to read this investigation by Lina Attalah in al-Masri al-Youm.

  2. The Eilat attack: Israel both immediately claimed that the perpetrators of the Eilat had come in from Gaza through Egypt and that Hamas were responsible for them, although Hamas denies this and Israel presented scant evidence. The Netanyahu government also used them as a diversion from protests against their economic policy, and used them to justify a new bombing campaign in Gaza that has already killed at least 15. It might very well be the case that the Eilat attackers came from Gaza into Egypt and then into Israel — but much of the coverage of the issue suggests this is a new phenomenon due to the situation in Sinai post-revolution. In fact, previous attacks in Israel’s south-west were probably also conducted via Sinai. So unlike Barry Rubin1 argues, this is not just “the bitter fruit of the U.S-backed downfall of the government of President Husni Mubarak in Egypt, opening the Egypt-Israel border as a new front in the war.”
    Of course, that it’s not the first time is little consolation to Israelis. But it means that has relatively little to do with the post-revolutionary situation. Egypt has a long border with Israel that has been porous to human and drug trafficking for a long time. It has a limited ability to deploy military personnel and helicopters. And it has a situation with smuggling and other illegal activities in Eastern Sinai that has been exarcebated by the blockade on Gaza. In other words, the core problem is not a temporary reduction in Egyptian control of Sinai. It’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pressures on neighbors created by the blockade on Gaza, and the international community’s endorsement of of it.

  3. The bombing campaign in Gaza: This brings us the point that, although it has scant evidence of who was behind the Eilat attacks, Israel bombarded Gaza, killing 15 so far, including at least five civilians, three of them children. In retaliation, Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel. But the truth is there would have probably been more rockets were it not for Israeli concern over the public mood in Egypt. This is one of the positive outcomes of the revolution: Israel will think twice about whether antagonizing Egyptian public opinion is worth it now that Mubarak is no longer around to deflect it.

Adam Shatz writes:

On Sunday night, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak called a cabinet meeting to argue against going to war in Gaza. The meeting lasted four hours, as these unlikely doves made the case for ‘restraint’. They were, in a sense, arguing against themselves. After the attack in Eilat last Thursday, in which eight Israelis, five of them civilians, were killed, Netanyahu and Barak had immediately blamed the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza, an armed movement of militants from different factions. If they had any evidence of PRC involvement, they didn’t share it: the best an IDF spokeswoman interviewed on the Real News could manage was that the attackers used Kalashnikovs. The PRC denied responsibility; Hamas was even more sheepish: the last thing it needed was another Operation Cast Lead.

A more likely story was that the attacks were carried out by Islamic militants in the Sinai, where relations between Bedouins and the Egyptian government have deteriorated, and where the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up five times since February (as it happens, one of the charges against Mubarak is that he sold gas to Israel at below market prices). Earlier this month, more than a thousand Egyptian troops launched a ‘pacification’ campaign in the Sinai after Islamist insurgents attacked a police station, killing five people.

But Israel insisted that Gazan militants were to blame for Eilat, and carried out air strikes in Gaza that killed at least 14 people, including two children. The usual round of rocket attacks by armed groups in Gaza (though not by Hamas) followed, and the usual calls inside Israel for more blood. War looked imminent. As some left-wing Israelis noted, it looked like just what Netanyahu needed to distract attention from – and perhaps even crush – the tent protests against his economic policies. Who would dare to demonstrate against the government – or raise inconvenient questions about the recent announcement to build 1600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem – if the nation went to war?

Yet here were Netanyahu and Barak, pleading with their cabinet for ‘restraint’ until the early hours of Monday morning. They were joined by defence officials who pointed out that Hamas hadn’t joined in the rocket attacks but had imposed a ceasefire on other militant groups. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu and Barak argued that Israel was too isolated internationally to go to war, and that its rocket interception system wasn’t fully prepared. But the decisive argument was that the price of war in Gaza could be the peace treaty with Egypt. Relations had already been jeopardised by Israel’s killing of at least three Egyptian security officers (five, according to Egypt) during its cross-border raid in search of the attackers in Eilat. The Egyptians were furious, and grew even more so when Israel chastised them for losing control of the Sinai.

Haaretz reports:

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz ordered on Wednesday that the Israel Defense Forces increase defensive measures along Israel’s border with Egypt due to intelligence that terrorist groups are planning attacks similar to the ones last Thursday in which eight Israelis were killed.

The new measures include putting in place additional means of electronic and visual intelligence gathering as well bolstering the Navy Command Center in the southern city of Eilat.

Also on Wednesday, security officials said that the Islamic Jihad operative who was killed in an IAF airstrike early Wednesday morning was responsible for transfer of funds used in last Thursday’s attacks.

The operative was identified as 34-year-old Ismael al-Asmar.

Security officials said that the decision was made to target al-Asmar due to intelligence that he was planning to initiate another attack from Sinai in the coming days.

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