Israelis who today for some reason feel safer because Gaza is getting bombed, might pause to consider this question: why would a member of the group that launched attacks outside Eilat yesterday — a group supposedly based in Gaza and sworn to the destruction of Israel — today blow himself up in an attack on Egyptian soldiers?
Many Israelis might avoid attempting to answer such a question and respond that it’s a jungle out there beyond Israel’s borders, as does commentator Yigal Walt, who writes:
The halcyon days of Oslo and dreams of a “New Middle East” and open borders between Israel and its neighbors are long gone; instead, we are facing a Mideast that is crueler and more dangerous than ever. As it did in the face of Palestinian murderousness in the past decade, Israel’s government must embark on a national project aimed at building large, effective fences around much of the country.
The notion of fences may be unsavory to many of us, but ignoring reality would not be a wise move. Should we fail to protect our villa by all means necessary, we shall find ourselves increasingly vulnerable to the Arab jungle around us.
As for those who have an interest in evidence, rather than taking comfort in deeply ingrained prejudice, the evidence suggests that the men who attacked Israelis yesterday and Egyptians today are in conflict with both states. More than likely, this has much less to do with Gaza or the Palestinian national cause than it has with the aspirations of radical groups based in the Sinai.
Those responsible for maintaining Israel’s security quickly claimed they knew exactly who was behind yesterday’s attacks in Eilat and duly dispatched the Israeli air force to rain down missiles on Gaza. No one explained why, if Israeli intelligence was so good, they had not prevented the attacks. Even so, the domestically perceived legitimacy of a security state depends less on its ability to thwart terrorism than its willingness to make a timely show of force. Indeed, the occasional tragedy has obvious political utility. The attacks in Eilat serve to remind Israelis that the state created as a safe haven for Jews can only remain safe so long as everyone remains afraid.
The problem with fear though, is that it inhibits curiosity — a population that lives in fear has a visceral need for security that overrides the cognitive need for understanding. Once hit, the reflex to hit back marginalizes the need to understand who, how and why.
In attempting to understand attacks that took place on the edge of the Sinai, the likelihood is that the explanation about who launched the attacks and why, would be found not elsewhere but in the Sinai itself.
The day before the attacks, CNN reported:
The Egyptian army and police are cracking down in an “anti-terror” operation in the Sinai area of Egypt, state-owned media reported on Tuesday, as reports emerge of Osama bin Laden’s doctor surfacing in the area.
Police said they found hand grenades, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition in the operation that targets Sinai “terror cells” suspected in attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel and a police station in the border town of el-Arish.
One person was killed and 12 were arrested on Monday, the first day of the operation, said Hazem al-Maadawi, a police officer involved in the offensive.
Citing an unnamed security official, state news agency EgyNews said authorities are targeting 15 more people who participated in attacks at an el-Arish police station — some of whom are members of the extremist Jaish el-Islam group, which is affiliated with al Qaeda.
The crackdown comes amid new developments on the whereabouts of a bin Laden associate.
Ramzi Mahmoud Al Mowafi, the doctor of the late al Qaeda leader, escaped from a Cairo prison during the Egyptian revolution earlier this year and has resurfaced in the country’s North Sinai area, an official said.
“Al Mowafi, also known among his fellow Jihadists as the ‘chemist,’ escaped from a maximum security prison in Cairo on January 30 while serving a life sentence,” Maj. Yaser Atia from Egyptian General Security told CNN Monday. According to prison records, Al Mowafi was sentenced to life for a “military case” — but more details were not immediately known.
Bin Laden’s longtime personal doctor and an explosives expert, Al Mowafi was born in Egypt in 1952. He left for Afghanistan to join al Qaeda, according to the data listed in his prison records.
“Al Mowafi was seen in Sinai by several Jihadist(s) according to witness testimonials,” Gen. Sameh Seif Al Yezen said. “I know he is very dangerous and that he had set up his own laboratory in Tora Bora with bin Laden. A full report will be published on this matter in the upcoming week.”
A general in Egypt’s intelligence service, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media, told CNN that “Al Mowafi surfaced in el-Arish and communicated with several ‘terrorists’ from the Egyptian Takfir wal-Hijra and the Palestinian Islamic Army.”
Takfir wal-Hijra is a militant Islamist group.
The general added, “Al Qaeda is present in Sinai, mainly in the area of Sakaska close to Rafah.”
Andrew McGregor provides more historical background on the region.
As the meeting point of Asia and Africa, the Sinai has always been important to Egypt’s security. Though the Sinai has been, with brief interruptions, a part of Egypt in one form or another since the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty (c. 3100 – 2890 B.C.E.), it has also been regarded as something apart from the Egypt of the Nile and Delta, a remote wasteland useful for mineral exploitation and strategic reasons but otherwise best left (outside of Egyptian security outposts) to the unruly Semitic and Bedouin tribes that have called the Sinai home since ancient times. The effect of these policies is that the Sinai Bedouin form only a tiny minority of Egypt’s total population, but retain an absolute majority in the Sinai.
In recent decades, however, Cairo has attempted to impose the deeply infiltrated security regime that existed in the rest of the country up until last January’s revolution. Many Bedouin involved in traditional smuggling activities found themselves in Egyptian prisons serving long sentences in often brutal conditions. The attempt to impose a security regime on the freedom-minded Bedouin led to a greater alienation of the tribesmen from the state, and the Egyptian uprising presented an opportunity to quickly roll back decades of attempts to impose state control on life in the Sinai. Most importantly, it opened the door for those influenced by the Salafist movements of neighboring Gaza to begin operations.
There are roughly 15 Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. In the politically sensitive northeast region (including al-Arish and the border area) the most important are the Sawarka and Rumaylat. There are also significant Palestinian populations in al-Arish and the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid.
Local Bedouin took the opportunity of storming the Sinai’s prisons, freeing an unknown number of Bedouin smugglers and Palestinian militants. In nearly all cases they were unopposed by prison staff. One of the escapees was Ali Abu Faris, who was convicted for involvement in the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings that killed 88 people in 2005. Others freed included Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners convicted more recently of planning terrorist operations in Egypt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009). Since emptying the prisons the tribesmen have warned the police to stay out of the main smuggling centers on penalty of death and the region has been effectively operating without any type of government.
But even if Israel faces a threat emanating from Egypt, Gaza presents a more convenient target of retaliation — even if this now opens a new risk of escalation.
Tony Karon writes:
There was a time when attacks such as those in southern Israel on Thursday might have been assumed to be the work of Hamas, out to torpedo the peace process. But there is no peace process to torpedo; it sank without trace some years ago without any help from Hamas. And Hamas is facing a potential crisis because its Syrian patron, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, may be on its way out of power, jeopardizing the status of the Hamas political leadership and headquarters in Damascus. The situation in Syria, and the new possibilities opened up by the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the growing influnence of Hamas’ Egyptian founding organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, give Hamas nothing to gain and much to lose by making life difficult for the military leadership in Cairo. Attacking Israel from Egyptian soil makes little sense for Hamas given its current political and diplomatic needs.
And a new crisis in Gaza hardly suits the agenda of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority: They plan next month to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines, and it hardly helps their case to have the fact that they have no control over events in Gaza — a substantial part of the state they are claiming — so graphically demonstrated.
But for a bit player like the PRC [Popular Resistance Committees] — if, indeed, it was responsible — or any other smaller groups challenging Hamas’ authority and pressing their own claims, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February and the weakening of his police state created a new opportunity to slip the shackles of Hamas’ cease-fire by leaving Gaza and launching an attack from Sinai. As our own Abigail Hauslohner has reported, Sinai has become a playground for Bedouin smugglers and various jihadists since Mubarak’s fall, with salafist groups (who share an ideology with al-Qaeda) believed to have been behind repeat attacks on the natural gas pipeline that runs through Sinai to Israel.
Thursday’s attacks came just days after 1,000 Egyptian troops launched an operation in northern Sinai against Islamist cells believed to be inspired by al-Qaeda, which had challenged Hamas in Gaza. Israel gave its approval for the operation — the 1979 Camp David Agreement requires Israeli approval for Egypt to deploy significant numbers of troops in Sinai — and so did Hamas.
The fall of Mubarak had created a vacuum in Sinai into which some of Hamas’ rivals have been able to move to provoke a confrontation that Hamas had been trying to avoid. But once the Israelis are bombing Gaza, Hamas may find it difficult or impolitic to restrain its own armed wing, or other groups from firing at Israel. So the danger of escalation becomes more acute. On the Israeli side, too. Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to hint that Israel may be planning a more sustained attack on Gaza, warning on Thursday that Israel sees the territory as “a source of terror, and we will take full-force action against them.”