Egypt's Wild East

The most recent Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian mini-crisis may be over, but the Sinai border will not stay quiet for long.

A week of Israeli-Palestinian clashes along the Gaza Strip came to an end last weekend after both Israel and Egypt applied pressure (respectively military and political) on the Palestinian military/terrorist organizations. But the impending Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, with an appeal for UN endorsement, and the impending Egyptian elections may bring the restored calm along the Sinai-Gaza-Negev borders to a gradual, or abrupt, end.

Without doubt, conciliatory noises by Israel, including a readiness for a joint inquiry into the clash ten days ago that resulted in the death of five Egyptian security men in Sinai, and pressure on Cairo by Washington helped calm the atmosphere. The Egyptians had initially threatened to recall their ambassador from Tel Aviv but were quickly dissuaded by the implicit threat of a cutoff of U.S. military aid, to which the Egyptian military, which now controls the country's postrevolution interim government, is particularly sensitive.

Probably at governmental initiative, the Egyptian press began on Friday to criticize the Palestinian and Egyptian gunmen who precipitated the Egyptian-Israeli-Gaza crisis by ambushing Israeli buses and cars just north of Eilat on 18 August, attacks that left eight Israelis dead and several dozen wounded. Until this weekend, the Egyptian press—and public— had focused exclusively on the Israeli killing of the Egyptian security men who died when Israeli helicopters, in hot pursuit, chased and targeted the ambushers inside Sinai, on the Egyptian side of the frontier border. Some of the ambushers were dressed in Egyptian army fatigues, and the Egyptian deaths were unintentional. Egyptian newspapers identified at least three ambushers as Egyptians (rather than Palestinians).

Over the past half year, the government in Cairo has gradually lost control of the peninsula as Palestinian gunmen, Islamist jihadists and unruly bedouin have gradually turned the area into Egypt's "Wild East." Islamists have repeatedly attacked and severed the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas to Israel, bedouin regularly smuggle drugs and Sudanese and Eritrean illegal migrants to Israel, and Iran uses the peninsula as a conduit for arms deliveries to its Islamist wards in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has now vowed to restore order in the peninsula, and Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to send in yet more military units (beyond the three battalions agreed upon a fortnight ago), including—for the first time—helicopters, to reassert its control and bring the gunmen to heel. Israel sees calm in the peninsula as a common interest. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 prohibited the deployment of Egyptian military units in central and eastern Sinai, but Israel has agreed that Egypt may breach the treaty's demilitarisation clause for the short-term advantage of curbing the terrorists.

(One may assume that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak's agreement to an increased Egyptian deployment in Sinai, which he has said would involve "thousands" of additional troops, was made contingent on Cairo's agreement to withdraw the troops back to the Egyptian mainland on Israeli request. Otherwise there is here a potentially explosive change in the post-1979 status quo that may prove highly problematic strategically for Israel in the long-term. In both 1956 and 1967 unagreed, unilateral Egyptian mass deployments of troops in Sinai resulted in preemptive Israeli invasions of the territory and all-out wars.)

At the same time, the Egyptian government has leaned heavily on the fundamentalist Hamas, whch controls the Gaza Strip, and on the still more extreme Islamic Jihad organization (both are avowedly anti-Semitic and publicly call for Israel's destruction) to stop their rocketing of Israel's southern villages and cities. During the past week several Israeli civilians were severely injured and one was killed by Palestinian rockets that hit Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon, while some two dozen Palestinian militants, mostly of the Islamic Jihad and the Resistance Committees—the organization that allegedly orchestrated the initial Eilat road ambushes—died in Israeli counterstrikes.

The Egyptian interim government prefers quiet along its borders with Israel and Gaza, but the surge in popular support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood—which has traditionally called for the scrapping of the peace treaty with Israel—may in the coming months bring to power in Cairo, following the elections, a ruling coalition far less eager to accommodate Israel (and Washington). The immense, instant popularity of the young Egyptian who last week tore down the Israeli flag from the building housing the Israeli Embassy and replaced it with an Egyptian flag was reflective of the popular mood in the country.

The past fortnight's Israeli-Egyptian mini-crisis and the simultaneous Israeli-Palestinian clashes along the Gaza border may simply be a foretaste of what can be expected in the region after the Palestinian declaration of independence, which will goad into anti-Israeli action not only the Palestinian masses but also the "streets" around the Arab world, every one trying to outdo the others in extremism, and after the Egyptian elections.

Image by Zedutchgandalf