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.
Beyond the risk of direct attacks, for years Sinai has been a concern to Israel because it is a source of, and path for, weapons, explosives and fighters going to and from Gaza. A 2012 State Department report found that the northern Sinai had become “a base for smuggling arms and explosives into Gaza, as well as a transit point for Palestinian extremists.” Israeli intelligence contends that weapons looted from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s arsenals in Libya and from the Sudan—including antitank and antiaircraft missiles as well as long-range rockets—pass through Sinai en route to Gaza.
These weapons could fundamentally change the threat to Israel from militant groups in Gaza. While Hamas has long been Israel’s enemy, historically it has been poorly armed, and most of its rockets have had little accuracy or range. But Hamas’s ability to send fighters in and out of Gaza for additional training in Lebanon and Iran also makes the organization more formidable. In addition, Sinai-based militants have entered Gaza to fight Israel. Many of the worst networks of jihadists and criminals overlap both Gaza and Sinai. During Israel’s eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012, Islamist organizations in Egypt sent money, weapons and fighters to oppose “the enemy of God.” As Israel regularly clashes with Hamas, anything that increases Hamas’s military strength is viewed as a grave threat.
Israel has tried to meet the threat from Sinai as it has met past cross-border threats: by employing a mix of diplomacy, threats, punishments, stepped-up intelligence and defenses. Israel’s preferred approach is to push Egypt to solve the Sinai problem. This has worked only fitfully at best. Senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad contends: “There is constant and in-depth dialogue with the Egyptians.” Israel, however, is leery of high-profile efforts or coercion, fearing that it would put the Egyptian government in a corner and, given Israel’s deep unpopularity in Egypt and the political uncertainty there, lead any regime to turn against Israel to curry favor with the Egyptian people.
Because neither Egypt nor Hamas can control Sinai, Israel has fallen back on improved intelligence gathering and defenses. Israel’s intelligence networks in Sinai were weak under the former regime of Hosni Mubarak; they relied on the Egyptian regime to exercise control and thus didn’t need a robust capability of their own. Although Israel’s networks have improved, it is difficult to gain a comprehensive intelligence picture on all the small groups in the Sinai and thus anticipate all attacks. Since 2010, Israel has built more than a hundred miles of fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border from Gaza to just north of Eilat. Sixteen feet high, the fence uses cameras, radar devices and other means of detecting infiltration by Sinai-based smugglers and militants. It also serves as a means of barring illegal migrants from entering Israel from Sudan and Eritrea.
Although this fence suppresses some infiltration, the threat to Israel is not just from cross-border attacks. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded, “We are building a very impressive security fence, but it doesn’t block rockets.” For rockets, he added, “We will hit those who come to hurt us and we will also hit those who send them.” Such talk sounds tough, but in practice it is hard to implement. Striking directly at groups in Sinai would violate Egypt’s sovereignty and risk inflaming Egyptian nationalism—exactly the sort of passions the jihadists want to generate. And hitting Hamas in Gaza does little to control violence from jihadists in Sinai, many of whom are also critical of Hamas. The jihadists reject the concessions Hamas has made in the name of governance, being particularly critical of its regular cease-fires with Israel and its failure to Islamicize Gaza fully.
Threats and punishments have worked with Gaza to some degree, however. Israel regularly strikes a range of sites in Gaza to put pressure on the Hamas regime, particularly after a rocket or terrorist attack. At times, as in Operations Cast Lead (2008–2009) and Pillar of Defense, the military punishment is massive, leading to widespread devastation in the Strip. More quietly, but more importantly for ordinary Gazans, Israel also maintains a host of severe restrictions on trade and travel to and from Gaza as well as on energy supplies entering the Strip. Since September 2007, Israel’s stated policy has been to allow in just enough to prevent a humanitarian crisis, while making daily life difficult and normal economic development impossible.
According to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet shortly after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip:
Additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity. Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip. The sanctions will be enacted following a legal examination, while taking into account both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to restricting what goes into Gaza, Israel’s blockade has also meant a virtual ban on exports from the impoverished Strip; in all of 2012, a paltry 210 truckloads of goods made their way out of Gaza, compared with more than 5,290 in 2006 and 15,255 in 2000.
Israeli coercion has limited attacks from Gaza because Hamas is capable of policing itself and, to some degree, other groups in Gaza. But it is far less likely to work in the Sinai because, while Hamas exploits the Sinai, it does not control it. Hamas has cracked down on these groups in Gaza, at times harshly and bloodily, but it cannot do so in Sinai.
BEYOND EGYPT’S risk of a clash with Israel, Egyptians themselves are paying a heavy price for Sinai-based terrorism. Years of neglect by successive Egyptian governments, along with a harsh and mountainous terrain, have made the impoverished Sinai an ideal breeding ground for extremist elements. A series of spectacular terror attacks on popular tourist destinations in the Sinai between 2004 and 2006 left some 150 Egyptians and foreigners dead and hundreds more wounded. It also dealt a major blow to Egypt’s tourist-dependent economy.
The erosion of law and order that has plagued Egypt since Mubarak’s fall has only compounded the growing security vacuum in the Sinai. Since February 2011, the security checkpoint in El Arish, near the Gaza border in North Sinai, has been attacked at least thirty-nine times, while the natural-gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan has been bombed no fewer than fifteen times. Attacks on Egyptian security forces and even multinational forces stationed in the Sinai have become routine. The deadliest attack occurred in August 2012 when armed militants ambushed an Egyptian military outpost near the Egypt-Gaza-Israel triborder area; they killed sixteen soldiers and commandeered two armored vehicles. In May 2013, gunmen abducted seven Egyptian police officers in northern Sinai. Although the kidnapped officers have since been released, the incident demonstrated that large swaths of Sinai territory remain outside the control of Egyptian authorities.
Two overriding interests guide Egyptian responses to Sinai: maintaining stability and safeguarding Egyptian sovereignty. Egyptian authorities have cracked down periodically on jihadist militants as well as smuggling networks in the Sinai-Gaza arena, but they are equally worried about the prospect of unilateral Israeli actions in the Sinai. Egyptians also have long feared that Israel seeks to permanently push Gaza, demographically and politically, onto Egypt. This fear feeds into other goals of the Egyptian government, including the promotion of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and restoration of Egypt’s regional prestige and leadership role.
Egypt’s determination to control the situation in the Sinai-Gaza arena was demonstrated last November when Egyptian authorities brokered a cease-fire agreement that ended eight days of fighting between Hamas and Israel, as well as intensified operations against Sinai jihadi elements and Gaza tunnels.
Long-term calm in Gaza, however, requires more than just an arrangement between Hamas and Israel and Egyptian security operations along the border; it also requires political arrangements between Egypt and Israel, and between Hamas and Fatah. So long as Hamas continues to operate as a free agent, outside the authority of the PA, it will remain unpredictable and hence a potential threat, as well as vulnerable to threats by even more radical groups. Consequently, internal Palestinian reconciliation, while still shunned by Israel and the United States, is in many ways a matter of national security for Egypt.
Yet political rivalries and uncertainty complicate any Egyptian approach. While security matters in the Sinai have long been mainly the purview of the military establishment and intelligence services and, to a lesser extent, the Interior Ministry, Morsi’s Brotherhood-led civilian government did play at least a limited role as last November’s Gaza cease-fire demonstrates. In fact, in the lead-up to his ouster, some reports indicate Morsi frequently clashed with his military commanders over Sinai and Gaza policy. Preferring dialogue over confrontation, Morsi repeatedly ordered the military to halt planned operations against jihadi militants believed to be involved in the abduction of Egyptian police officers in May. The military was also suspicious of Morsi’s relationship with Hamas and resisted his entreaties to improve relations with Hamas. In response to the spike in violent attacks following Morsi’s ouster, the military intensified operations in northern Sinai, requesting and receiving Israel’s approval to increase its troop deployment in the area. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s notoriously corrupt internal-security services treated Sinai residents with more contempt and brutality than they did the rest of the population. Consequently, after Mubarak’s fall, Egypt’s as-yet-unreformed police force became a frequent target of Sinai-based militants and was less eager to police the Sinai than the major population centers to the west. The military, meanwhile, although it values Egypt’s security ties to Israel and places a premium on internal stability, has neither the desire nor the capacity to police the Sinai—or, for that matter, any other part of Egypt. In the wake of Morsi’s overthrow, deadly attacks on police and other security personnel became an almost-daily occurrence, while Egypt’s previously embattled police force resumed its prerevolutionary levels of brutality. The current wave of violence has reinforced Egyptian authorities’ traditional security-focused approach to dealing with the Sinai, while neglecting the deeper economic and developmental problems that afflict the troubled region. For years the United States has offered millions in development aid for the Sinai, although Egyptian authorities have yet to decide whether or not even to accept it.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