NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Following a terrorist attack near Eilat on August 18, Israel’s south was bombarded with rockets and mortars fired from Gaza, many of them smuggled from the Sinai.
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Gunmen originating in Gaza killed eight people near Eilat on August 18, in the deadliest attack against Israelis in three years.
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As Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is currently the de facto head of state in Egypt.
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The terrorists, who infiltrated Israel from the Sinai, attacked a passenger bus, a military patrol and a private car.

The New Threat from the Sinai

The terrorist attacks near the southern Israeli city of Eilat on August 18 corroborated what many analysts had been warning about for months: the Sinai Peninsula has become the source of a new threat to the security of Israel and the safety of its citizens. Following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, security forces have lost control of the Sinai. This has allowed various terrorist groups to establish a thriving arms smuggling trade in the area and repeatedly attack the pipeline supplying gas to Israel and Jordan. The most recent incident, in which eight Israelis were killed, underscores the extent to which the deterioration in the security situation endangers Israeli lives and may destabilize the entire region.

The Aftermath of the February Revolution

Although the revolution that brought Mubarak’s 30-year rule to an end earlier this year was driven by internal grievances, both political and economic, his fall has significant repercussions for the entire Middle East and beyond. These repercussions are already evident in the Sinai Peninsula and in Egypt’s relations with Israel.

Far from the capital city of Cairo and inhabited by an alienated and unruly Bedouin population, the Sinai has long been difficult to control. Terrorist activity in the area is nothing new. In April 2010, an Egyptian court convicted 26 men of belonging to a Hizballah cell that planned to attack Israeli tourists in the Sinai and ships passing the Suez Canal, and in August 2010 rockets fired from the Sinai hit Eilat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba, killing one Jordanian civilian and wounding several others.

However, the security situation has significantly deteriorated in recent months. Serving as the provisional governing body since February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been preoccupied with stabilizing Egypt. As a result, radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaida-inspired militants, have been able to infiltrate the Sinai Peninsula and use the area for training, arms smuggling and planning and perpetrating terrorist attacks.

“Sinai has become a freeway of arms into Gaza from various sources. It’s clear Egypt isn’t doing enough [to stop this]. It wasn’t under Mubarak and it certainly isn’t now,” says Boaz Ganor, Director of the Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Tel Aviv. Jihadist cells in the Sinai have blown up a pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan five times this year, and killed six people when they attacked a police station in the northern Sinai city of al-Arish in late July.

Recent Events

On August 18, a group of terrorists infiltrated Israel from the Sinai near Eilat. Armed with heavy weapons, guns and explosives, they launched attacks on a passenger bus, a military patrol and a private car, leaving 8 Israelis dead and injuring some 30 more.

This highly complex assault was a clear result of the breakdown in order and security in the Sinai. The terrorists, associated with the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), managed to enter Egypt from the Gaza Strip, cross the Sinai undetected and then infiltrate Israel through its 165-mile border with Egypt.

The White House and State Department condemned the attacks. Calling the attacks “brutal and cowardly,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed growing concerns over the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.

Following the Eilat attacks, terrorist groups in Gaza fired more than 160 rockets and mortars into Israel, forcing one million residents of southern Israel into bomb shelters, killing an Israeli civilian and wounding dozens of others. These groups have taken advantage of the situation in the Sinai, turning it into a base for smuggling weapons into Gaza, including rockets originating in conflict-torn Libya. “Weapons are available in Libya as a result of the unstable situation there, and Hamas has exploited it to buy weapons from Libyan smugglers,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in late July.

Israel limited its response to the Eilat attacks and rocket fire, striking targets associated with the PRC and Islamic Jihad in Gaza but avoiding a major military assault. Here again, the regime change in Egypt seems to have played a role. Out of sensitivity to Cairo’s concern that an Israeli attack on Gaza would further inflame the Egyptian public, Israel chose to exercise restraint.

Securing the Southern Border

Israel is taking steps to increase security along its border with Egypt, such as accelerating the construction of a security fence, which is expected to be completed in 2012 at a cost of $360 million, and deploying anti-terrorism units to the area. Israel has also permitted Egypt to temporarily deploy additional troops in the Sinai in order to crack down on Islamist groups.

At the same time, the Jewish state is reluctant to reopen the provisions of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that limit Egyptian military deployment in the Sinai, particularly when Egypt’s future is unclear. It has strived to preserve an increasingly fragile relationship with the transitional government in Cairo, which is much more sensitive to the Egyptian street than was the Mubarak regime. This consideration constrains the Israeli response to terrorist attacks from the Sinai and Gaza.

The United States has an important role to play in maintaining peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel and ensuring security along Israel’s southern border. By making use of the close relationship it has with Cairo, the United States can seek to persuade Egypt’s leaders to abide by their international obligations, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and to better control the Sinai. Washington provided Egypt with $1.55 billion in aid during fiscal year 2011 and the militaries of the two countries share close ties, providing the Egyptians with access to advanced military technologies.

One of Israel’s quietest borders for many years has, over the past few months, turned into its most deadly. Dealing with this new threat will require the Jewish state to shift resources to the Sinai border, work in close cooperation with the United States, and maintain a careful balancing act in responding to terrorist attacks while simultaneously preserving the relationship with Egypt’s military leadership. BACK TO TOP