How Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Figures in the Gaza Turmoil

Why some experts fear the Egyptian territory--now a playground of smugglers and terrorists--may be help trigger broader conflict.

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The word Sinai was never uttered through three presidential debates and almost never on the campaign trail. But ask some foreign policy experts where they fear the next flashpoint will be in the Middle East and it isn’t Iran or, even, Syria. It’s the Sinai. They point to the escalating violence in the Gaza Strip, which borders on the Sinai, as evidence of just how combustible the region in.

The Sinai Peninsula, which is ostensibly ruled by Egypt, is a backwater of mostly desert and rocks. It is famous for three things: the Suez Canal, Mount Sinai where Moses received the 10 commandments; and the luxury resorts of Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea. But, with post-revolutionary Egypt in constant tumult, tourist and pilgrimage traffic is down. And as the Egyptian military focused on internal politics, the Sinai has become overrun by smugglers – who deal in everything from drugs to guns to humans — and worse, al-Qaeda affiliated extremists. “After the revolution, disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai cooperated with released jihadist prisoners from [former president] Hosni Mubarak’s jails to begin attacks on security installations and the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “The jihadists in the Sinai have pledged their allegiance to [al Qaeda leader Ayman al] Zawahiri, and he has repeatedly endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets. Libyan weapons have also found their way into the Sinai.”

Along a 14.5 kilometer stretch of Sinai’s eastern shoulder, is the border with the Gaza Strip. It is through some 400 tunnels under this border that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that rules the strip, smuggles the rockets in its arsenal. Other Palestinian radicals in Gaza like Islamic Jihad have done so as well. That firepower is now being sent into Israel after the Jewish state assassinated Hamas’ military chief Ahmed al-Jabari on Wednesday and launched an air-and-drone assault that has killed about a score of people in the coastal enclave. Some 200 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, killing three Israelis and wounding several others. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has destroyed 80 incoming rockets; Israel has also targeted Hamas’s cache of Iranian-made rockets. The U.S. has reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself.

The complication comes from the other U.S. ally in the equation: Egypt.  President Obama spoke with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy on Wednesday night. But on Thursday morning, on Egyptian television, Morsy said that though he told Obama he respected Egypt’s relations with the U.S., he also underlined “our complete rejection of this assault and our rejection of these actions, of the bloodshed, and of the siege on Palestinians and their suffering.” Morsy recalled his ambassador to Israel over the attack.

Hamas and Morsy’s political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, are closely aligned. In the weeks leading up to al-Jabari’s assassination, Morsy had been working to ease tensions between Hamas and Israel. “Morsy is concerned, as Mubarak was, about threats to security in the Sinai Peninsula,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, wrote last month. “He has made it clear to Hamas that if Egypt is to work with the movement to improve the situation in Gaza, Hamas will have to close the smuggling tunnels across the Egyptian-Gaza border and cooperate in closing down smuggling and terrorist networks in the Sinai.”

One of the reasons the Sinai is such a draw for terrorist groups is because they can easily lob bombs across the Israeli border and Israel cannot respond lest it risk breaching its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. At Israel’s request, the Egyptian military has added divisions to the Sinai in recent months. And so Israel’s military offensive in Gaza is a message not only to Hamas and Palestinian radicals, but also to the jihadist groups on the peninsula and to the Egyptians who govern the territory. “Sinai is a significant threat. You have jihadist groups which are able to operate relatively freely across Gaza and the Sinai, giving them strategic depth,” says Mike Singh, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ”It’s all part and parcel of the same threat as Gaza, and we need to see Cairo and Hamas get serious about getting it under control.” But, until a ceasefire is called in the Gaza Strip, nothing can be done except to take cover.

14 comments
gltoffic
gltoffic

I truly believe that Egypt should give sovereignty of the Sinai to the Kingdom of Jordan.  The people of the Sinai are much more closely related to Jordanians than Egyptians.(of the river).  The two governorates of the Sinai are the two least populated governorates of Egypt.  

Then from the other point of view, a Sinai as part of Jordan would allow the Jordanian economy to absorb, to a much greater degree, the flow of refugees from the area and all the turmoil.  The assets of the Sinai would also be much more adaptable to the Jordanian secular society.  And on a "bank for buck" ratio, the Sinai would greatly increase the Jordanian economy to a much greater degree than all of Egypt.  

As a final carrot, if Israel were to consider also passing sovereignty of Eliat and a ways north of the city  to Jordan. The Aqaba metroplex could be a huge engine for economic growth.   This might be a consideration of good faith as Jordan would then be the only direct neighbor to all of Palestinian territories besides Israel.  The richer Jordan became the more it might act as a magnet for Palestinian economic growth and non violence as well.  

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

News From....

Middle East, smaller than Montana: The world turns

Huge continent of Africa: [crickets]

HudsonValleyTim
HudsonValleyTim

It's always interesting to me that Israel can pick-out a single car with a high-value terrorist target for a surgical strike, but somehow the digging of 400 tunnels evades detection.  Am I missing something?

sacredh
sacredh

One thing that makes me wonder is the timing. This has been going on for a long time. Did BiBi delay because his sources convinced him that Obama would win the election and any responses by Israel before the election would be interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome? Barack and BiBi are hardly close friends. I also wonder what Adelson thinks.

carotexas
carotexas

Thank you Jay I like how you described the geography in relation to the events. 

I did not have time to post on your Iran articles but I thought they were very good with the added descriptions of life and the people with the sanctions.  

outsider
outsider

Things flared up in lebanon as well.

Its getting pretty scary all around over there. And that will impact everyone

sacredh
sacredh

Thanks for the article JNS. Your work is much appreciated.

sacredh
sacredh

"The word Sinai was never uttered through three presidential debates and almost never on the campaign trail. But ask some foreign policy experts where they fear the next flashpoint will be in the Middle East and it isn’t Iran or, even, Syria. It’s the Sinai."

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That's pretty much the way everything happens in the real world. We all focus on the well known and predictible suspects and then the real world intrudes and  we have another crisis that was triggered by the unexpected. An ambassador was killed in Benghazi and then every armchair political hack looks back in hindsight and says we should have known. Superstorm Sandy took the wind out of Romney's sails and then Christie becomes a traitor for saying the President was doing a good job (when it WAS his job). McCain skips a classified briefing on Benghazi because he felt it was more important to hold a press conference asking for an investigation of Benghazi. We live in a crazy world.

outsider
outsider

They have to know where the tunnels are. But they leave them alone.

I just don't know what the reasons are..@HudsonValleyTim

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Adelson gambled on the election results (arrrgghh!!!)

La_Randy
La_Randy

@sacredh Maybe it is because they (Israel) are about to have elections.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Ditto, JNS.

Kinda leads to the point I made earlier: We can't seem to focus on more than one place at a time.  And when we do look to foreign lands it mostly focuses, for biblical/historical purposes, on the ME and not the rest of the civilized world.