NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
The pipeline delivering gas to Israel and Jordan through the Sinai has been attacked 14 times since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year.
Growing security threats from the Sinai have forced Israel to devise a costly fortification plan for its southern border.
The Continued Threat from the Sinai
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, many things in Egypt have changed. Unfortunately, some of these changes have negatively affected the country and its neighbors.
One particularly far-reaching and troublesome development is evident in the Sinai Peninsula, where increasing lawlessness endangers lives, hurts economic growth and threatens regional stability. Since the beginning of this year, the Sinai has seen clashes between security forces and the local Bedouin population, multiple bombings of a gas pipeline carrying gas to Israel and Jordan, and several cases of foreign nationals being taken hostage and even killed.
Plans to carry out a terrorist attack from the Sinai were thwarted in March when Israel killed the leader of the group plotting the attack in a pinpoint airstrike. The Gaza-based terrorist group known as the Popular Resistance Committees was also responsible for last August’s infiltration north of Eilat, which claimed eight Israeli lives.
While there were several bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Sinai before the Arab Spring arrived in Egypt, the Peninsula was best known for its beach resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh and a mostly uneventful calm that allowed tourism to flourish. In just a short time, the area has become notorious for chaos and security risks, fueled by a radicalized and long-repressed Bedouin community alongside a waning police presence.
Residents and visitors to the Sinai are now potential victims of Bedouin kidnapping plots. In late January, 25 Chinese nationals were abducted on their way to work at a cement factory in the Sinai. The captors demanded that the Egyptian government release Bedouin prisoners held in connection with terrorist activities and that Egypt end its export of gas to Israel. A few days later, the workers were freed without the kidnappers’ conditions being met, but the people involved never faced any legal repercussions for their actions.
Two American tourists were similarly kidnapped just days after the Chinese workers were released. An Egyptian official in southern Sinai, Gamal Abdel Barry, claimed that the Bedouin captors freed their victims out of fear of how this situation “was bad for Egypt’s image and tourism.” Again, the captors, who had stormed the tourists’ minivan and robbed them, were never arrested.
During the same time period, a French national was murdered in Sharm el-Sheikh after enduring gunshots from a drive-by shooting by Bedouin gunmen. Media reports claim that the gunmen sought to avenge the death of a fellow tribesman killed by police.
Growing Security Threats on Israel’s Southern Border
In addition to the growing risks to personal safety, the Sinai has become a haven for arms smugglers. Terrorist groups have taken advantage of the lawlessness in the area to transport weapons from Libya to terrorist groups in Gaza.
In Congressional testimony, General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said that as many as 20,000 surface-to-air-missiles were in Libya when NATO operations against the Gaddafi regime began there last year. “Many of those, we know, are now not accounted for,” said Ham, who was in charge of the 2011 military intervention in Libya. These and other weapons pose a serious threat to Israeli aircraft that monitor the borders with Gaza and Egypt, as well as civilians in southern Israel, who have been relentlessly targeted by Gaza-based terrorist groups.
A reminder of the missile threat developing in the Sinai was felt earlier this month when a Grad rocket came over the Egyptian border and landed in Eilat.
The Bedouin have also targeted the pipeline in the Sinai that delivers natural gas to Israel and Jordan. “There is no real Egyptian control over Sinai, the best example of which is their inability to secure the gas pipeline,” said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Over the past year, the pipeline has been struck 14 times. According to an investigation by the Israeli financial publication Globes, Bedouin tribes have been demanding—without success—to receive compensation for protecting the pipeline from further explosions.
The increased terror threat from the Sinai has caused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to accelerate the ongoing construction of the southern border fence and revolutionize its approach to the daily operations along the border. Elite infantry forces now patrol the area, anti-tank ditches are being dug and sophisticated weapons systems are being put into place.
Adjusting to this range of new threats is time-consuming as much as it is costly. “The security problem which is developing as a result of changes in the Middle East is getting worse … [and] Israel is required to strengthen its defense and attack capabilities immediately, which costs a lot of money,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a recent meeting with Israeli Knesset members. “Terror elements have entered the region, they’re using the area as a platform for terror, Sinai has become a destination for Iran,” he added.
“It is clear to us that all we knew in Egypt under Mubarak’s regime is not what will be in the future, and there will be wide security implications,” Netanyahu stated. Under such circumstances, continued American military assistance to Israel and firm resolve to ensure that Egypt abide by its international obligations are vital.