Cairo has recently concurred with the request of Tel Aviv to increase the military deployment in this zone to 1,000 troops, seeking to restore security in the area, which is highly strategic for both sides.
BY ASSOC. PROF. RICHARD ROUSSEAU | DECEMBER 15, 2011
On the 18th of August an attack launched by military commandos against buses in some Israeli towns north of Eilat in the Negev desert resulted in many victims, including some of the attackers and several Egyptian soldiers. The attackers are claimed to have crossed into Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, though Egyptian officials deny this.
The attack triggered a series of countermeasures, which created strong tension between Tel Aviv and Cairo. Israeli reprisals in the Gaza Strip were followed by continuous launches of Qassam rockets from Gaza towards the Israeli towns of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’er Sheeva by Palestinians. The Sinai Peninsula is now once again turning into a flashpoint and could see a new round of socio-political clashes. Tel Aviv’s prospects could be further complicated by its internal problems – such as massive protests over rising rents and economic crisis – as well as external – the new regional scenario resulting from the “Arab Spring.”
Also, a vote at the United Nations (UN) on Palestinian statehood was held on November 11. It was rejected after the Palestinians failed to muster enough votes support in the U.N. Security Council. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a bid for full UN membership for the state of Palestine on September 23. The Palestinian application is opposed by Israel and the United States. The latter say that the recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, is a step aimed at de-legitimizing Israel. For Tel Aviv and Washington, an engagement in peace talks with Israel is the only way Palestine can achieve statehood. Since that day the Israelis are preparing for the worst case scenario, as they fear a rise of tension in Israel and in the Middle East following the vote and the determination of Palestinian authorities to pursue their bid for a full United Nations membership.
Faced with this array of political variables, it is highly likely that Israel could lose control of “fast moving” events and find itself in the midst of a new Arab-Israeli crisis.
- The bombings in Eilat and the Israeli reaction
The terrorist attack in the Negev (on the Israeli side of the Sinai desert demarcation line) triggered a triangle of tension between Israel, Egypt and Hamas, the radical Palestinian political organization which runs Gaza. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the attack occurred on the road connecting Be’er Sheeva with Eilat, near Ein Netafim, where two armed groups attacked two Israeli buses and a private car, leaving seven people dead and a dozen wounded. The perpetrators of the attacks were members of the Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian group sometimes referred to as a “cartel” which has a galaxy of acronyms of affiliates, including groups representing the former militants of Hamas, Fatah, the Islamic Jihad and the Brigades of the Martyrs of the al-Aqsa. Israel’s response was swift, and targeted against the Gaza Strip. Israeli Air Force (IAF) sorties resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people, including 5 Egyptians. Hamas, despite not having claimed responsibility for the attacks, justified them, and hoped that other actions would be carried out against the enemy. The breaking of the ceasefire between Hamas and Tel Aviv, agreed in 2009, which was confirmed by Abu Obeida, spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedim al-Qassam Brigade, was the first political causality of this action. In turn, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, in an interview with Israeli newspaper Maariv, accused Egypt of not operating in an effective manner and not controlling its Sinai border, assigning to it responsibility for the commando attack. This accusation drew a dry and resentful denial from Cairo, and the Egyptian Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Yasser Rida, was recalled.
Israel then launched a massive military operation against Gaza dubbed “Operation Eagle,” which aimed to stop the continuous firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel proper and root out other terrorist cells and armed gangs operating in Sinai. It also tried to find a notorious figure, Ramzi Mahmud al-Muwafi, a physician and chemical weapons expert who has worked for Osama bin Laden. He escaped from an Egyptian prison last January.
At the same time, the Israeli Government sought to protect the civilian population from the rockets. Some have criticized Israel for stepping up its use of the majestic “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system, which cost $205 million and has already been actively deployed in fending off attacks on Jerusalem and subsequent Israeli retaliation against the Gaza Strip in March of this year. Iron Dome launches mobile weapons and is capable of intercepting short-range threats at distances ranging from 30 and 70 km. It is versatile and effective in all weather conditions.
- Egypt and Sinai: new threats to Israel?
Sinai and southern Israel had been free of such incidents for almost two years; however, since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Egypt’s territory appears to have become a fertile ground for terrorist activities, which will create new “realities” in this region of the Middle East. It is clear to the Israelis that dangerous terrorist cells are present there, as well as a flourishing illegal arms traffic in both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Even major Egyptian newspapers, such as al-Ahram and al-Wafd, have discussed these concerns and raised the possibility that al-Qaeda agents, members of Hamas and Hezbollah mercenaries are active in the peninsula, allegations vehemently denied by Khaled Fuad, the Governor of Sinai. The fall of former President Mubarak has aided the proliferation of such trafficking and movement of armed groups as the previous state controls have now lapsed. This has led to attacks on police posts at el-Arish and the Arab Gas Pipeline, which in addition to supplying Jordan is designed to meet 40% of Egypt’s energy requirements.
The security of the peninsula is regulated by the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt signed at Camp David in Maryland in 1979. These agreements set the number of Egyptian soldiers allowed in Sinai and expected their ultimate reduction. Sinai is now recognized as an integral part of Egyptian territory. It was captured by Israel during the Six-day War (1967), occupied for many years, partially returned to Cairo under the Camp David Accords and then officially returned in its entirety to Egypt in 1982, although this actually happened only in 1989 when the Taba agreements were sealed. These agreements confirmed the full recognition from the Israeli side of the international border between the two States. The agreements of 1979 divided the peninsula into three zones of military deployment. In area C, the one closest to Israel, any deployment of the Egyptian military must be minor in comparison to the other zones and be by garrisoned troops serving in conjunction with those of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan and a contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (www.globalbrief.ca) and The Jamestown Foundation.