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.