The Death of Egyptian-Israeli Peace

For Israel, the days of a secure southern border are over. The inexorable march towards conflict with Egypt continues.

The head of Israel's opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, had it right when she said last Friday that Israel's southern border with Egypt was "no longer a border of peace.” She was referring at once to the complex attack across the Sinai border the day before by Palestinian terrorists, which left eight Israelis dead (six of them civilians, including two middle-aged sisters) and two dozen wounded, and to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979. The purport of Livni's statement was underlined by Egypt's announcement Saturday withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv and demanding an Israeli apology for the death of three of its soldiers as a result of Israel's responses to the terrorist attack. (The Egyptians, under U.S. pressure, subsequently withdrew their threat to recall the ambassador, but are insisting on an Israeli apology and on compensation for the families of the Egyptian dead—though they have said nothing about compensation for the families of Israel's dead, due to their own negligence.) The Egyptians were also miffed at Israeli criticism of Egypt's negligence in allowing the terrorist raid, launched from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, to take place.

The raid, mounted by 10–15 Palestinian fighters from the Gaza Strip's Resistance Committees, led to a flurry of Israeli counterstrikes against terrorists in Gaza and Sinai, and then to terrorist rocket attacks against Israel's southern cities, including Ashdod and Ashkelon.

Placing the weekend's events along the Sinai-Israel border in a wider regional context, it can be seen that the popular uprising half a year ago in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria which ousted the 30-year-old regime of President Hosni Mubarak is steadily, perhaps inexorably, leading to the unraveling of the peaceful, if very formal, relations that have reigned between the two countries since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the treaty on the White House lawn. Such an unraveling bodes ill for the future of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Muslim relations more generally.

The Egyptian populace, much of it supportive of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic Islamist parties, has been educated to hate Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, as much by the propeace regimes of Sadat and Mubarak as by its Nasserist and monarchical predecessors, and it was only natural that the clamor for the ouster of the dictator in the Arab spring would be accompanied by a rise in anti-Israeli agitation, including a call to tear up thae peace treaty.

Hence the weekend demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the burning of Israeli flags and demands for the severance of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. This followed announcements by senior Egyptian officials that three Egyptian security personnel had been killed in the Israeli helicopter strikes in Sinai that followed Thursday's ambushes of Israeli buses and cars on Route 12, just north of the southern port city of Eilat. The Israelis were targeting the gunmen, who had fled back into Sinai and who allegedly belonged to the Resistance Committees, an ally of the fundamentalist Hamas organization that rules the Gaza Strip. The two groups have in the past jointly attacked Israeli targets, including in the famous crossborder raid in which the Palestinians took Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit hostage four years ago. It is unclear whether Hamas in any way aided the Resistance Committee raid, but Israeli observers noted that such a large, complex attack could not have been prepared without Hamas at least knowing what was in the works.

In one of Thursday's counterstrikes in Gaza, the Israeli Air Force managed to kill the leaders of the Resistance Committees, including the head of its military wing, Abu Awad a-Neirab; in other raids, Hamas was targeted. The Israeli counterstrikes also triggered stone throwing by Palestinian youngsters in East Jerusale which may presage the violence many anticipate when the Palestinian leaders are expected to announce Palestinian "independence" next month.

But the killing of the Egyptian soldiers, who apparently were standing next to several of the Resistance Committee terrorists, may prove more significant. The Egyptians reject the Israeli argument of "hot pursuit.”

The fact is that following the fall of Mubarak, Egyptian rule in the Sinai Peninsula has disintegrated. Egyptians seemingly no longer assiduously block clandestine Iranian shipments of arms into the Gaza Strip through the tunnel system, and the native beduin tribes of the peninsula, traditional smugglers of goods and people (mainly drugs and illegal emigrants from Sudan and Eritrea) into Israel, have prospered. A largely destitute Sudanese-Eritrean community now populates a part of southern Tel Aviv, where it is a source of crime and social unrest.