The Deepening Chaos in Sinai

The Deepening Chaos in Sinai

Mini Teaser: A security vacuum in the Egyptian peninsula has created a dangerous haven for terrorists and all sorts of illicit actors.

by Author(s): Daniel BymanKhaled Elgindy

SINAI INSTABILITY has been both an asset and a liability for the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers. Since the closure of Gaza’s borders by Israel in 2007, the tiny enclave has relied on the elaborate network of tunnels constructed beneath the Sinai-Gaza border for the smuggling of basic goods as well as weapons, most of which are transferred to Gaza via the Sinai. As one Israeli security analyst put it, “Whatever isn’t allowed to move above ground will find its way below it.” Tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border have existed since at least the 1980s, but were limited mostly to the smuggling of contraband such as cocaine and hashish. After Hamas’s takeover of Gaza and the imposition of the Israeli blockade in the latter half of 2007, however, the tunnel network expanded greatly. Hamas has used the tunnels to smuggle in weapons and to smuggle out fighters for training. However, most of what is smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels are civilian goods, including building materials and basic consumer goods that are scarce or unavailable due to the Israeli-imposed blockade.

At its peak in mid-2010, Gaza’s illicit trade network consisted of some thousand tunnels funneling more than four thousand different types of products, both consumer goods and contraband, into Gaza. But things changed after the flotilla incident of May 2010, in which Israeli commandos raided a Turkish vessel carrying civilian goods bound for Gaza and killed nine people aboard the ship. In response to the widespread criticism unleashed by that episode, Israel eased restrictions on imports into Gaza. As a result, 70–80 percent of Gaza’s tunnels were put out of commission. Moreover, Hamas taxes these tunnels, and Israel has largely tolerated them in order to ease some of the economic pressure on Gaza (and diplomatic pressure on Israel), thereby helping Hamas to consolidate its economic and military hold over Gaza while displacing Gaza’s legitimate economy. So long as these networks remain financially viable, they will continue to support smuggling and illicit networks in Sinai as well.

Hamas’s immediate priority is to maintain and strengthen its grip over the Gaza Strip. At a minimum, this requires meeting the basic needs of Gaza’s population. Having been relatively successful at restoring basic law and order, the Hamas regime has focused much of its energies on pushing back against the restrictions imposed on Gaza from the outside, whether by Israel or by Egypt. The results have been mixed. Hamas’s ultimate objective is to see an end to the six-year-old Gaza blockade and the reopening of its borders. To this end, Hamas frequently tolerates (and occasionally engages in) rocket attacks against Israel, partly in order to bolster its “resistance” credentials and partly to challenge its containment. That was the case last November, when Israel’s eight-day offensive exacted a heavy price on Gaza in both military and human terms. But the cease-fire deal resulted in some limited but tangible improvements in the Gaza closure regime, such as the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone from three to six nautical miles.

Hamas’s political ambitions go well beyond Gaza. In the short term it hopes to outgovern its Fatah rivals in the West Bank and ultimately to displace them. Since its formation in the late 1980s, Hamas’s position has gradually evolved from seeking to replace the traditional Palestinian leadership—initially embodied in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and since 1994 by the Palestinian Authority—to taking over these institutions. Such aims drove Hamas’s decision to participate in PA elections in 2006 after having boycotted all previous polls. Likewise, Hamas leaders now have set their sights on the PLO, the barely functional but traditional center of the Palestinian national movement. Although a shadow of its former self, the PLO remains the legal and political address of the Palestinian cause and is universally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, both inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories.

It is this international legitimacy that Hamas desires. Although international attitudes toward Hamas have warmed somewhat in recent years, the movement is still shunned by most Western European states as well as the United States, to say nothing of Israel, and is once again on the defensive in the region. For the most part, the debate within Hamas, however, has not been about whether it will come to power but when and how—whether in the interim to share power with Fatah (via a reconciliation agreement) or simply to wait it out by banking on Fatah’s eventual collapse. In the absence of a credible peace process and with the Fatah faction in a perpetual state of disarray, the latter strategy had always served Hamas well. The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and its growing regional isolation, however, may force Hamas to reassess its options.

The loss of its Brotherhood allies in Egypt is an especially bitter pill for Hamas to swallow. Gaza’s borders have once again been closed, while the smuggling tunnels that are the lifeblood of both Gaza’s economy and Hamas rule have come under increasing attack by Egyptian security forces. Meanwhile, Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are growing impatient with Hamas’s increasing repression and the absence of a long-term plan for ending their predicament. As a result, reconciliation with Fatah, once the shock of Morsi’s loss has died down, may now be a more attractive option for Hamas.

Further, while Hamas does not control all the tunnel traffic, its reliance on tunnels was already beginning to backfire. Gaza has three times the population of Sinai (but less than 1 percent of its land area), and Gaza’s robust smuggling trade, including the influx of weapons and the promise of fast money, has helped to fuel the Sinai’s own illicit economy as well as increased violence. This growing incidence of attacks has prompted Egyptian security forces to crack down with increasing severity in recent months. They flooded dozens of tunnels beneath the Sinai-Gaza border in January and closed Gaza’s border crossings with Egypt in June. Egypt’s antitunnel activity and border restrictions intensified further following Morsi’s overthrow, leading to acute shortages in fuel and other basic necessities in Gaza. This combined with Hamas’s loss of its Brotherhood allies in Egypt feeds its willingness to renew rocket attacks on Israel.

Regardless, Hamas is keen to maintain its “resistance” credentials, notably its weapons and armed militias. This is so not only because much of its legitimacy has come from confronting Israel but also because it wishes to avoid the fate of its Fatah rivals in the West Bank, whose decision to cooperate with Israel left them open to allegations of being “Israel’s subcontractor.” Hamas is determined to avoid what it views as the fundamental mistakes of Fatah, which agreed to recognize Israel and abandon armed struggle without getting an end to the Israeli occupation. Parallels with the PA are reinforced by Hamas’s periodic crackdowns against more radical Salafi and jihadi elements in Gaza, mirroring Fatah’s treatment of Hamas in the West Bank. The growth of even more radical critics in Sinai and Gaza poses a political risk to Hamas and makes it more likely that Hamas will fall back on violence.

Among other things, this means the conditions laid out by the so-called quartet, comprised of the United States, European Union, Russia and the UN—that Hamas disarm, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements—are simply no longer viable. For one thing, demanding that Hamas unilaterally disarm while Israel continues to impose realities on the ground through force of arms, including a blockade on Gaza and an occupation in the West Bank, would be seen by most Palestinians as tantamount to surrender. Indeed, Hamas leaders are convinced, perhaps rightly, that were it not for its arms it would probably not have survived all these years.

ALTHOUGH RECENT developments in the Sinai-Gaza theater have clearly put Hamas on the defensive, they do not change the continued irrelevance of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Not long after Hamas handily defeated his Fatah faction in the 2006 PA elections, Abbas’s Fatah forces were expelled from Gaza by Hamas in June 2007. Since then, Abbas has longed to return to Gaza and restore his credibility; without at least a nominal role in Gaza, Abbas cannot truly claim to speak for all Palestinians. The fact that Gaza, rather than the West Bank, has been the main driver of events on the Israeli-Palestinian front for nearly a decade—beginning with Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and extending to last November’s miniwar between Hamas and Israel—has only compounded Abbas’s and the PA’s growing sense of marginalization.

Even though Gaza remains beyond the reach of Abbas and his PA, this has not insulated them from the fallout of events there. Ironically, events such as Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza flotilla disaster, controversies surrounding the so-called Goldstone report on military abuses in the 2008–2009 Gaza war, and Operation Pillar of Defense, while principally involving Hamas, proved particularly damaging to Abbas and Fatah. This was equally true of the most recent round of fighting in November 2012. Whereas Hamas emerged from the conflict militarily weakened but politically strengthened, earning the respect and sympathy of both Palestinians and Arabs across the region, the crisis served to highlight Abbas’s powerlessness and growing irrelevance.

Image: Pullquote: Increasing violence and instability in Sinai could complicate Egypt's already-troubled transition and raise the prospect of renewed large-scale conflict between Israel and Hamas.Essay Types: Essay