Israel’s Quandary In The Sinai

UPDATE 10 am Israel time Wednesday:

At 7:30 am this morning, there were incoming rocket sirens for the Lachish and Negev regions–two minutes later, 5 mortars struck near Kissufim. This follows multiple rocket attacks yesterday on the same area of southern Israel. 


For the last 24 hours, a battle has been raging in the northern Sinai with Egyptian forces forces on one side, and Bedouins and Islamic terrorists (sometimes one and the same) on the other. Following the murder of the Egyptian border guards at Rafah, armed gunmen have brazenly attacked Egyptian security checkpoints in El-Arish, al-Toumah, and elsewhere. More than 20 elite Egyptian commandos were killed yesterday in fierce firefights. Two more Egyptian soldiers were killed today at Sheikh Zuwaid in the northern Sinai.

In response, Egyptian jets and helicopter gunships have killed at least 20 terrorists in their first bombing runs over the Sinai since 1973. All of these military actions have been taken following security coordination with Israel. Nevertheless, there are reports today that the Egyptian Army has retreated to “defensible positions” and is awaiting reinforcements. 

It might be worthwhile to step back for a moment and briefly recall what has transpired in the Sinai Peninsula since the 1979 Peace Treaty was signed by Israel and Egypt. 

A map of the Sinai with main roads. Note how much of the Sinai is inaccessible, except to Bedouins (and terrorists).

To begin with, the Sinai is an enormous area consisting of 61,000 sq km (23,000 sq mi) mainly populated by Bedouins. Captured by Israel in 1967 and defended by Israel in 1973, the Sinai was the main territorial component of the peace treaty–a peace treaty which called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the peninsula.

The Treaty, still in force today, established extremely complicated security arrangements in the Sinai. Divided into different zones, the Sinai is demilitarized in different degrees–but more so in the zone that is within 40 kilometers of Israel (Israel, by the way, agreed to limit the number of our forces within 3 km of the Egyptian border). A United Nations force of approximately 1700 personnel–about half of which are actually soldiers– patrols the area as observers making sure both sides adhere to the treaty  (700 of the soldiers are from the U.S.). 

During the decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the Egyptian attitude toward the Sinai was largely one of security disinterest. On the one hand, Egypt developed the Red Sea coastline for tourism, but on the other hand, the government largely left the interior of the Sinai to the Bedouins. Aside from occasional terrorist incidents, the “Sinai”–particularly the Red Sea coastline of the Sinai–seemed “relatively” secure.

However, from the moment the so-called Arab Spring began in Egypt, all eyes turned completely away from the Sinai, and terrorists and weapons began to flood in from all directions; numerous terror bases in the central Sinai mountains and in the northern Sinai were established, and the Bedouin clans armed themselves to the teeth. 

Over the last 15 months, terrorist actions such as the blowing up of the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan have occasionally spurred the Egyptian military to action–and in each case, Israel has given Egypt permission to increase its forces in the 40 km demilitarized zone. However, with Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian military virtually abandoned any responsibility for maintaining order–both because its attention was focused on Tahrir Square in Cairo and because the terrorists and Bedouins became increasingly well-armed and dangerous. 

The problem for Israel is both short term and long term.

In the short term, it is in Israel’s best interest for the Egyptians to clean out the terrorist camps in the Sinai and de-arm the Bedouins (if they can). To this end, there is little Israel can do except to accede to ever greater Egyptian requests for more military equipment and forces to be positioned there.

In the long term, however, it is not in Israel’s best interest to have a huge Egyptian military force camped at its doorstep again as it was before 1967. With southern Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah, Syria in a state of freefall, Jordan ripe for Islamic picking, and Hamastan in Gaza firing missile and mortars in southern Israel every day, the last thing Israel needs is a heavily armed Egyptian Islamic state in the Sinai.

What can Israel do? Very little, if anything, on the ground except for risky commando raids. Increase air reconnaissance? Perhaps–but Morsi’s Egyptian government is already somehow accusing Israel of  “violating Egyptian sovereignty.” Call for increased United Nations’ actions? The last thing the U.N. wants is to be drawn into a conflict in the Sinai.

Apparently the only thing to do is to grant the Egyptians more leeway to bring more military resources into play–and hope they pull back to their original positions when the job is done. Fat chance.  

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