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

Although the Brotherhood’s downfall in Egypt has improved Abbas’s prospects, it may not be sufficient given that expectations are so much higher for Abbas’s Fatah leadership than for the Hamas regime in Gaza. As the PA president and head of the PLO, Abbas remains (at least theoretically) the leader of all Palestinians, including those in Gaza and even in the diaspora. Thus, whereas outside Gaza Hamas must do little more than survive and claim it could do better if it had more power, Abbas’s leadership must do much more; in addition to delivering tangible improvements in the lives of West Bank Palestinians, Abbas is also expected to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation, establish an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem and find an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Indeed, worsening conditions in Gaza, far from enhancing the position of Abbas and Fatah, as many U.S. policy makers have believed, actually erode the PLO’s overall standing in the eyes of Palestinians. It is worth noting that the reverse is decidedly not the case; failures in the West Bank do not hurt, and usually help, Hamas.

Given its interconnectedness with other issues, any solution to the Sinai problem involves tradeoffs. Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli interests all are involved, and of course the militants in Sinai also will have their say. Different options involve working more with Hamas to solve the problem, encouraging the Palestinians as a whole to take action via a unity deal and providing more incentives for Egypt to act.

One potential approach to Sinai is to work through Hamas and Gaza. But can this be done? Hamas now is at a crossroads, holding on to “resistance” while trying to gain recognition as a credible political actor and a legitimate government. The tension between these two goals can be increased by allowing Hamas to gain further credibility and legitimacy through more diplomatic recognition and a chance to improve Gaza’s economy in exchange for rejecting violence. Hamas would not disarm or recognize Israel, but it would stop its own attacks and use its influence to hinder others from doing so, whether in Gaza or through its Sinai networks.

This approach carries two risks—one obvious, the other more subtle. The obvious risk is that Hamas may not moderate. It could use any respite to better arm itself and otherwise make itself more formidable. Yet such an approach would jeopardize the diplomatic gains Hamas has made in recent years and decrease its popularity among ordinary Palestinians—very real costs. In any event, the military balance between Hamas and Israel would remain overwhelmingly in favor of Israel.

The more subtle risk is that the policy succeeds in making Hamas emphasize politics over violence and, in so doing, helps Hamas to supplant the West Bank leadership of Abbas with a more confrontational though less violent approach. The result would be a Hamas-led Palestinian polity whose leadership likely would be less interested in peace and generally more hostile to Israel.

One way—perhaps the only way—to mitigate these risks is to push for “normalizing” Hamas firmly within the framework of Palestinian reconciliation, the outlines of which were agreed to by Fatah and Hamas along with other Palestinian factions in April 2011. The deal, which has been reaffirmed and expanded in subsequent agreements, calls for the formation of an interim government comprised of independents and technocrats not affiliated with either Fatah or Hamas, but approved by both, thereby avoiding U.S. and international bans on dealing with Hamas members. Affording Hamas a formal role in the PA and the PLO would give Hamas what it seeks most, international recognition and legitimacy, but in a way that is both controlled and conditional. Implicit in the deal is a Hamas cease-fire with Israel and Hamas’s tacit acceptance of Abbas’s authority to negotiate with Israel—a huge potential gain for Israel.

All of this remains highly theoretical, however, as implementation of the Palestinian unity deal continues to be held up by both Hamas and Fatah, each of which seems to believe it can wait out the other. The internal stalemate is further buttressed by lingering differences over the fate of Hamas militias in Gaza and Fatah’s security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, although these obstacles may not be insurmountable. A more inclusive and representative PLO may make it harder to reach a deal with Israel, but such a deal would be far more credible and durable. Conversely, a deal signed by a weak and noncredible Palestinian leadership is unlikely to hold, and Hamas and other spoilers could undermine it at will.

If the prospect of participating in (and perhaps ultimately controlling) official Palestinian institutions is not enough to induce Hamas to go along, more immediate practical realities might. As noted previously, the Gaza blockade continues to pose a challenge from both the Egyptian and Israeli sides of the border. Since neither Israel nor Egypt trusts Hamas to police the border, reopening Gaza’s border crossings will require a return of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority there. Yet since Abbas has vowed never to return to Gaza “on the back of an Israeli tank,” there is no realistic way for the PA to return to Gaza without Hamas’s permission, which can only happen in the context of internal reconciliation. Meanwhile, the current security vacuum in Sinai, which has exposed Hamas’s vulnerability, particularly vis-à-vis Egypt, presents an opportunity for Abbas that he is keen to exploit. With Hamas now weakened by events in Egypt, this may be the most opportune moment to push reconciliation on terms more favorable to Abbas and Fatah.

More can be done from the Egyptian side of the border as well. Restrictions on Egypt’s ability to deploy in the Sinai, outlined in the security annex to the Camp David accords, limit the numbers and types of forces Egyptians may deploy there. Such restrictions are seen across the board—by the Egyptian military, Islamists and secular political groups—as an affront to Egyptian sovereignty and national pride. Moreover, they are often cited as a serious challenge to Egypt’s ability to deal effectively with the growing threats in the Sinai. Although Israel has resisted the idea of formal changes to the treaty, it has on several occasions allowed Egypt to increase its armed deployments in areas adjacent to the Gaza Strip, whether through separate agreements (such as after the 2005 Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza) or on an ad hoc basis.

Israelis note that troop allowances in the current treaty are sufficient to quell the unrest in the Sinai, and where they are not, Israel has allowed augmentations on a case-by-case basis. But this offers only a technical solution to what is essentially a political problem. Doing so would leave the Egyptian government and military open to allegations of being Israel’s lackey. So unless Egypt can find some political cover and portray the crackdown as part of a broader deal in which it extracted concessions from Israel, it will be politically difficult for it to marshal the necessary forces for a sustained period of time.

THE UNITED STATES also has interests in Sinai beyond America’s desire that its allies be free from violence and generally well governed. The return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty was central to the success of the American-brokered Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which in turn has formed the cornerstone of America’s diplomatic and security posture in the region for more than three decades. Some of the terrorist groups in Sinai loathe not only Israel and the Egyptian government but also the United States. In addition, instability in Sinai and radical politics there are potential sources of unrest in Egypt that could further complicate its already-troubled democratic transition. Most important, the United States wants to prevent any renewal of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, even one that falls well short of outright war. Such a clash would put the United States in a difficult position between its closest Middle East ally and the most populated and influential Arab country—and one whose transition may influence the course of others in the region. A clash would place the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the spotlight, further discrediting Washington with many Egyptians and with Arabs in general.

The United States can play an important role in helping reduce instability emanating from the Sinai. Part of the role is continuing vigilance in the region to prevent any unrest from Sinai from escalating into a broader clash that would sour Egyptian-Israeli relations. The United States can also encourage Israel to allow a renegotiation of the annex to the Camp David accords. As discussed above, the treaty itself is not a serious limit to an Egyptian crackdown. However, by giving Egypt’s government and its military a political “win,” it increases their desire and ability to crack down in a sustained way.

The United States can also encourage Israel to explore options with Hamas that fall short of an all-out deal for either side but decrease the risk of violence and Hamas’s use of the Sinai as an outlet for its illicit networks. Gaining stability in the Sinai is vital for Israel’s security and relations with Egypt. And since the Sinai’s fate is intimately bound up with that of Gaza, further reducing the blockade of Gaza will also need to be on the agenda if Hamas is to make more concessions on stopping smuggling.

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