Sinai: A Territory Without a Master

Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai Peninsula has become a magnet for radical elements from all over the Middle East, writes Yehuda Balanga. The Bedouins, encouraged by Al-Qaeda and global Jihad movements, are taking control of the Sinai's main thoroughfares, and act as masters of the country. 

al-monitor Bedouins squat over a hilly area overlooking Gaza, in Rafah city, north Sinai. Photo by REUTER/Asmaa Waguih.

Topics covered

world jihad, weapons, terrorism, sinai, israel, iran, egypt, bedouins, al-qaeda

Jun 23, 2012

Heavy weapons, including missiles, flow from all over the Middle East to the Sinai Peninsula. This compels Israel to urgently overhaul and renew its entire security approach vis-à-vis Egypt.

We will start from the end: The Sinai Peninsula is a magnet that draws extremists from the Middle Eastern expanse. While these agents are ideologically connected to Gaza on one hand, and to Islamic movements and parties from Egypt on the other, they do not always feel bound to obtain "permission" to take action against Israel. As a result, we face a new, unprecedented military-security challenge: to identify an enemy that is not only elusive, but also splintered into numerous and diverse cells.

Today there are approximately 500,000 people living in the Sinai Peninsula, of which 400,000 live in Northern Sinai. It is estimated that the Bedouins number about 200,000 people, affiliated with 15 different tribes. These tribes have divided specific territories among themselves, and are subject to a network of inter-tribe customs and agreements. In addition, the Egyptian government encouraged the transfer of citizens from the Nile Valley to Sinai after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, to help develop the area. But the development enterprise discriminated against the Bedouins, who were sometimes evicted from lands that they viewed as their own for the benefit of the new settlers. The Bedouins also claim that they were not granted equality or given a share of the profits of the infrastructure development in Sinai, mainly gas and oil.

This discrimination provided an opening for the attempts of the various tribes to enlarge their sources of livelihood, mainly with regards to Gaza that became a de facto part of Northern Sinai’s economy. In other words: they initiated the building of tunnels and smuggling operations (to Gaza) including trafficking in weapons, women, drugs, organs [for transplants] and "assistance" to infiltrators (refugees and terrorists) to cross the border to Israel and Gaza.

In addition to the economic problems of the Bedouins, it should be noted that recent years have seen an increase in religious devoutness that did not characterize them in the past. Young Bedouins are influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood or radical Salafist movements, that ideologically conspire to subvert Israel. Add to the mix the fact that foreign players, such as Iranians, members of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, are also active in this territory (that is three times as large as the State of Israel), the resultant state of affairs is very problematic for Israel. After Mubarak’s ouster, the Bedouins — with encouragement from al-Qaeda and forces belonging to the World Jihad movement — entered the vacuum that had been created. These Bedouin took control of central routes in Sinai and began to act as lords and masters of the territory. Not infrequently they even tried to conquer territories in Sinai, while waging bitter battles against Egyptian forces (as in the El Arish-based terrorist attack in south Israel last August), and establishing a governmental apparatus based on the Sharia [the moral code and religious law of Islam]

Meanwhile, after Mubarak’s ouster the Egyptians raised internal Egyptian issues to the top of their priority list, [while Sinai became far less important].  The Egyptian army that had never fully controlled the Sinai Peninsula, [now became even more impotent]. Thus the various terror organizations allow themselves — with the direct and indirect aid of the Bedouins — to carry out terrorist attacks and launch rockets toward Israel’s territory, knowing that the Israelis and Egyptian army are not likely to seek a confrontation with them.

Here lies the paradox. The Egyptian army does not have the ability or the means to control the territory, while Israel cannot violate Egyptian sovereignty to attack [its enemies] in Sinai. Even worse, the very discussion in Israel, about whether to enter Sinai to combat terror, is likely to ignite the entire Egyptian community — including secular, educated and Islamic individuals of all the social classes — to unite against Israel and demand the nullification of the peace agreements.

On the other hand, Israel cannot allow itself to fall between the chairs. It must re-establish its intelligence network in Egypt, it must transform the border fence into a “smart obstacle,” and it must overhaul its security conception vis-à-vis Egypt so as to adapt it to current circumstances. In the age of the collapse of Arab regimes, the door is opening even wider to the infiltration of hostile elements. Heavy weapons including missiles flow from all over the Middle East to Egypt, and from there to Sinai and Gaza. Therefore, Israel must quickly deploy itself appropriately in light of the threats massing in the South.

The author is an expert on Egyptian and Syrian affairs, in the Department of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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