Egypt, Israel and Sinai
The need for triangular co-operation
A jihadist attack on Egyptian and Israeli forces requires urgent co-operation between the two countries—and with the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza
Aug 11th 2012 | CAIRO, JERUSALEM AND RAFAH | from the print edition
THERE was no shortage of warning. In the 18 months since Egypt’s revolution, Bedouin chiefs in the Sinai peninsula have voiced mounting concern about the growing boldness of armed jihadist groups in their midst. In June a bunch of them based in Gaza launched an attack via Sinai that left one Israeli dead. In July jihadists released a video and leaflets promising to turn Sinai into an Islamic emirate and demanding that Egyptian government forces should impose sharia law or quit. On August 2nd Israel’s government called on its own citizens to stay away from Sinai’s beach resorts, citing intelligence warnings of a heightened risk. Three days later the Israelis fired a rocket, killing a Palestinian motorcyclist in Gaza, who, they said, was a jihadist. Retaliation beckoned.
Yet a few hours later, just before sunset, Egyptian soldiers manning a desert checkpoint near the three-way junction of Egypt’s border with Israel and the Gaza Strip took no precautions before sitting down to break their Ramadan fast. Some still had food in their mouths when their bodies were recovered. The masked men who pulled up in several cars showed no mercy, blasting the checkpoint with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic gunfire. They left 16 Egyptian servicemen dead.
Some of the attackers, wearing suicide-belts, then hijacked two armoured personnel carriers and sped towards the Israeli border. One vehicle, laden with explosives, failed to break through the barriers and caught fire. The other penetrated more than a mile into Israeli territory before being hit by a rocket fired from an Israeli helicopter. The Israelis were evidently readier than their Egyptian counterparts.
As Egyptian forces reinforced the northern part of Sinai, the risk of a full-scale local revolt grew. Eye-witnesses in el-Arish, North Sinai’s biggest town, reported half a dozen attacks by jihadists at midnight on August 7th, with the airport and the road to Rafah, on the border with Gaza, coming under fire. Egyptian forces chased the attackers to el-Touma, home of the Qurn, a clan with links to extreme Islamists. Amid a partial news blackout in Egypt, initial reports claimed that ground troops, backed by helicopter gunships, had killed at least a score of the jihadists, though locals were sceptical of the claim. A fierce counter-insurgency campaign is now expected.
In Egypt blame was soon angrily flung around. Supporters of the “deep state” that still dominates the security establishment were quick to castigate Egypt’s newly installed, Islamist-tinted civilian government. President Muhammad Morsi, they said, had foolishly relaxed controls on Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, cosying up to his fellow Islamists in the Palestinian Hamas movement that runs the enclave. They blamed Mr Morsi for letting dangerous foreign elements infiltrate both Sinai and Gaza. Egypt’s new prime minister, Hisham Kandil, was jeered and pelted with shoes at a state funeral for the 16 servicemen. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which both Mr Morsi and Hamas spring, suggested that Israel’s intelligence service had somehow staged the attack.
Others pointed fingers at Egypt’s military rulers. On August 8th, perhaps deliberately exploiting the army’s discomfiture, Mr Morsi threw down a gauntlet to the generals by sacking a string of senior officers, including the head of intelligence and the military governor of northern Sinai. This may help Mr Morsi regain some of his prestige, which has plummeted since he became president.
In the decades since Egypt recovered Sinai from Israel, following the peace accords of 1979, a succession of generals appointed as governors has failed to tackle the desert region’s malaise. A vicious security clampdown in 2004 following terrorist attacks on tourist resorts in southern Sinai, along with immigration by Egyptians from the Nile Valley, alienated Sinai’s already disgruntled Bedouin.
After Hamas took over the running of Gaza in 2007, prompting Israel—unchallenged by Egypt’s government—to besiege it, the Palestinians began digging hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt. This fostered a bonanza of smuggling that profited Bedouin tribes, corrupt Egyptian officials and the Islamists of Hamas. Arms smuggling in particular surged last year, as rebels in Libya grabbed huge stocks of weapons accumulated during the paranoid reign of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
Complaints from Israel and its Western allies over Sinai’s increasing lawlessness have often been met with protests that the 1979 peace treaty restricted Egypt’s army to a token, lightly armed presence. (An American-led multinational monitoring force in Sinai is often attacked.) Last year Israel agreed to let Egypt deploy an additional 1,500 men and to fly helicopters near a border strip. But only now, in the wake of the attack, is Egypt taking serious measures to seal the smuggling tunnels and hunt down the jihadists in the region’s barren hills.
The Hamas conundrum
Alarmingly for Palestinians in Gaza, who have hoped for warmer ties with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, Egypt has again closed its official border crossing, the territory’s only reliable outlet to the world. Fearful of an anti-Palestinian backlash, Hamas expressed fulsome condolences for Egypt’s fallen soldiers. Hamas has struggled to suppress jihadist extremism in Gaza while at the same time exalting the right of its own people to fight Israel.
Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, led prayers in the road outside Gaza City’s Egyptian consulate, with half his cabinet and hundreds of others prostrating themselves in unison. He is said to have discussed the situation for two hours with Egypt’s (later sacked) intelligence chief, Murad Mowafi, and promised to improve co-operation. An Egyptian newspaper said Hamas had provided the tip-off enabling an Egyptian helicopter to fire on jihadists on August 7th near the border town of Sheikh Zwayed, where masked men in Afghan dress were directing traffic.
For years Hamas has suppressed jihadists groups in Gaza, especially those espousing puritanical Salafist ideals that hark back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas sought to prevent them from attacking hairdressers, internet cafés, Christians and other supposedly decadent influences. But it has been less eager to curb their missile attacks on Israel or to stop them infiltrating Egypt.
More recently, however, Hamas has closed the tunnel complex to slow infiltration and gun-running. If Hamas really wants to please the Egyptian government, it would arrest the 200-odd jihadists still at large in Gaza. Hisham Saidini, a jihadist preacher whom Hamas had freed soon after Ramadan started last month, defended the killing of Egypt’s soldiers on the grounds that they were protecting Jews.
Israel, too, will have to let both Egypt’s security forces and those of Hamas in Gaza control their borders more effectively. Israel may have to allow Hamas to operate in a buffer zone along Gaza’s eastern border. Egypt’s air attack on the jihadists on August 8th was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973, and was co-ordinated with Israel in advance. The Israelis say they have had several discreet high-level talks with the Egyptians since Mr Morsi was sworn in a month ago.
The three governments also need to agree on new economic arrangements. For the past five years, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that fostered smuggling through the tunnels has hugely benefited people in Sinai who are beyond the law—of any country. Opening the borders to legal traffic and trade should lessen the power of jihadists and smugglers in Sinai and Gaza, and thus strengthen the arm of the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem.
Mr Morsi seems well aware of the dilemma. Egypt’s main military academy and senior civil posts have been opened up to the Bedouin, and plans are afoot to improve the peninsula’s several hundred villages, many of which have no piped water. He had already made a point, early in his presidency, of visiting Sinai. He has also hosted Hamas leaders. Before the Sinai attack, he received Mr Haniyeh and discussed definitively lifting Gaza’s siege.
Israel may also have to consider co-operating with Hamas, its avowed enemy. After the attack on August 5th, Israel’s leaders were careful to blame global jihadists rather than Gazans or Hamas. Although Egypt has yet fully to open the crossing at Rafah, Israel has already reopened its one nearby at Kerem Shalom, for trade if not yet for people. With the influence of Islamists in Syria likely to grow in the event of Bashar Assad’s fall, Israel may have to decide whether to accommodate itself to the likes of Hamas lest a still fiercer version of Islamism comes to the fore.