JERUSALEM: The Sinai has long been an area beyond the writ of Cairo. The vast desert peninsula is inhabited largely by Bedouin tribes, who for decades have been marginalised, neglected and impoverished.
But in the 18 months since the Egyptian revolution forced out the former president Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai has become more chaotic and violent. And Israel has become increasingly alarmed by deteriorating security across its southern border.
The peninsula is a wild frontier, a “new hotspot with an expanding terrorist infrastructure”, according to a report, Sinai: A New Front, by Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, released earlier this year. “Measures are needed to prevent the total collapse of security in and around the peninsula [and] avoid the rise of an armed runaway Bedouin statelet.”
Israel has urged the Egyptian government to take firm action against Bedouin militants and smugglers, and has enlisted the support of the US in its efforts. During a visit to Cairo last month, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, warned that Sinai could become an “operational base” for jihadists if security was not stepped up.The region has suffered from chronic under-investment in education, health and transport. Its inhabitants are among the poorest in Egypt. Added to the potent mix of poverty, alienation and tribal loyalties is a sizeable Palestinian population in the north of the peninsula, with family, political and economic connections to Gaza.
In the south, massive investment since the 1990s in upscale resorts in the former Bedouin fishing village of Sharm el-Sheikh, and a programme to create a “Red Sea Riviera” along the coast, has further alienated the Bedouin. They are routinely excluded from employment in swanky resorts, and consequent resentment may have contributed to a spate of tourist kidnappings and armed robberies in the past year.
In the north, there is markedly more violence. A pipeline supplying gas to Israel has been blown up more than a dozen times, disrupting flow and causing millions of dollars worth of damage. Armed gangs are trafficking huge numbers of people fleeing persecution, war or poverty in other parts of Africa, charging thousands of dollars for passage across the Sinai into Israel.
Camps have been established, from which emanate horrific stories of rape, torture, extortion, misery and desperation. The smuggling of drugs and arms is also a major industry.
And there has been an increase in militant Islamism. Israel says it detects the presence of “global jihad” militants and groups, some loosely connected to al Qaeda. “There is a problem with Bedouin tribes drifting towards a fundamentalist Islamic ideology, making themselves part of the Islamic jihad movement, by which I mean a loose network of small terror organisations trying to fight the current order,” Major General Dan Harel, former deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, said earlier this week.
Israel cannot risk jeopardising its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt by taking action itself. Under the terms of the treaty, the Sinai is a demilitarised zone. But the overnight military attack by the Egyptian military may be the first step in Cairo’s efforts to regain control and impose order.
By arrangement with the Guardian