Sunday’s attacks on the the Gaza-Egypt-Israel border — in which gunmen stormed the Rafah border crossing, killed 16 Egyptian security officers, and then smashed through a barrier into Israel before being stopped and killed by Israeli forces — highlights the serious danger posed by an increasingly lawless Sinai region, in which extremists are gaining a stronger foothold.
Issander El Amrani has a good post on what is known about how the attacks went down, and the response by Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian authorities. What’s most worrying, according to El Amrani, “is the lack of law and order, and presence of the state, in Sinai since the January 2011 uprising — and the continuing absence of policies to deal with the neglect of this region for the last 30 years.”
I wrote about this last September and continue to believe that Egypt needs to act to reimpose itself strongly in the area: through a zero-tolerance for criminal gangs and armed groups, Bedouin or foreign, and through a genuine policy of development, job-creation and integration of Sinai into the national economy. It’s not easy, it’s long-overdue, and it needs to start sooner than later even if strong-arm tactics that will probably be involved may cause more trouble in the short-term.
The problem of security and growing extremism in the Sinai isn’t new. Here’s the New York Times reporting on it in 2005 and 2006. But with the Egyptian revolt, the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and the creation of a new Egyptian government, even less attention has been paid, and the problem has gotten worse.
As a result of Sunday’s attack, an Egyptian security source told Reuters that Egypt would begin to seal off the smuggling tunnels the lie beneath the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah.
Earlier this year, I visited Gaza, via the Sinai, and wrote about the massive, and hugely profitable, tunnel trade that has risen up as a result of the blockade enforced by both Israel and Egypt. The taxes levied on these smuggling activities are a key source of revenue for Gaza’s Hamas government, and smugglers on both the Egypt and Gaza side of the border are making lots of money off of them, so expect there to be a massive outcry if the Egyptian authorities attempt anything more than a symbolic sealing off of a few tunnels, as they have done in the past.
Commenting on the attack on Monday morning, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “I think that the risk of a very large terrorist attack was averted, and this was a very important operational success in the battle that is raging there and maybe a proper wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands on their side in a stronger manner.” According to an IDF investigation of the events, the Israelis had intelligence that an attack was imminent, and took precautions. Information was also shared with the Egyptians, who apparently did not take the warnings seriously. Instead, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood nonsensically accused the Israeli spy agency Mossad of being behind Sunday’s attack in an effort to undermine Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood.
When I visited Israel last month, the problem of the Sinai was often brought up in meetings with security officials, who noted that an attack on Israel emanating from there could very quickly escalate out of control. Thankfully, that didn’t happen here, but it’s a clear sign that it’s time to take security in the Sinai more seriously. In the words of one security analyst, the peace between Israel and Egypt forged by President Carter at Camp David in 1979 “is one of the most important accomplishments of the United States in the Middle East in the last forty years,” and it’s in the interest of all the parties to make sure that that peace does not unravel.