The Sinai test

Published : Sep 07, 2012 00:00 IST

A handout picture released by the Israeli army shows a vehicle burning near the Kerem Shalom border crossing after unidentified gunmen crossed into Israel from Egypt late on August 5.-AFP

A handout picture released by the Israeli army shows a vehicle burning near the Kerem Shalom border crossing after unidentified gunmen crossed into Israel from Egypt late on August 5.-AFP

The August 5 attack on a border post in the Sinai poses the first set of challenges for the new government.

The recent killing of 16 soldiers manning a border post in the Sinai poses a new set of challenges that will test the vision, resolve and tactical nimbleness of Egypts elected leaders. The August 5 attack on the troops, as they were about to break their Ramzan fast, was swift and ruthless. Thirty-five assailants, travelling in three vehicles, struck with lethal ferocity and then sped towards the Israeli border in two stolen armoured vehicles. One of the two troop carriers exploded at the Kerem Shalom crossing manned by Israel. The other vehicle managed to travel a distance of two kilometres inside Israeli territory before it was blown apart by a missile fired by an Israeli aircraft. Some of the attackers managed to escape the wreckage but were killed during an engagement with Israeli ground troops. Eight bodies five on the Israeli side and three on Egyptian territory have been recovered. With the gunmen either dead or missing, the floodgates of speculation have opened regarding the motive for the assault and the masterminds behind the plot.

The attack in the Sinai, an area rich in history, which was occupied by Israel but returned to Egypt following the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, has opened a Pandoras box. Domestically, the attack raises questions about the competence of Egypts new Islamist leaders to protect their land and the people who reside within. The crucial geographic location of the Sinai on the borders of Gaza and Israel has brought into focus Egypts neighbourhood policy in the post-Mubarak era. How will Egypt maintain its cross-border interaction with the Palestinian residents of Gaza without alienating Israel, which would oppose a fundamental impairment of the status quo worked out during the Mubarak years? The incident has also drawn attention to the problematic relationship between Egypts elected leaders and the military, which, habituated to a good working relationship with the Israelis, under the watch of the Americans, may be disinclined to pursue an alternative course.

Soon after the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organisation to which President Mohamed Morsy belongs, accused the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, for masterminding the strike. Evidently, this crime may well be the work of Israels Mossad, which has sought to abort the revolution ever since its launch, and which issued instructions to Israeli citizens in the Sinai to leave immediately, just days ago, read a Muslim Brotherhood statement. It added: It is clearly noticeable that every time a warning like this is issued, a terrorist incident takes place in the Sinai.

The statement reasoned that the attack fulfilled major Israeli objectives. For instance, it saddled the Egyptian government, already grappling with several tricky internal difficulties, with a major problem on the borders. The Brotherhood also saw the attack as a diversion meant to dissuade the President from pursuing his reform project.

It also tarnished the image of the new Egyptian government, which was formed only a few days earlier. Finally, the attack was meant to drive a wedge between the Egyptian administration and the Egyptian people on the one hand and between the Palestinian government and the people of Gaza on the other.

A more detailed explanation for the attack targeting the Mossad has come from Mousa Abu Marzouk, the politburo chief of the Hamas, which has the Muslim Brotherhoods support and administers Gaza. Incidentally, Marzouk now resides in Cairo, having shifted his base from Damascus in the aftermath of the 17-month-old internal conflict that has embroiled Syria. His presence in Cairo and the recent red-carpet welcome accorded to the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh underscore the emotional warmth that exists between the higher echelons of the Hamas and Egypts new Islamist leadership.

In an interview with Egypts Al Ahram weekly, Marzouk went to great lengths to establish a case against Israel in view of the attack. The perpetrators could be Islamist extremists but the possibility of them being infiltrated by Israel remains strong, he asserted. Marzouk pointed out that the killing of the attackers arouses suspicions about Israeli involvement.

First the assailants target Egyptian border guards, then they head into Israel only to discover that theyre very, very exposed to the Israeli air force, which instantly kills them all. Next thing you know, Israel is cheering its victory over a terrorist group. He added that the killings might have become necessary in order to shroud the identity of the assailants. The vehicle that the attackers were driving has also been completely destroyed leaving very little for Egyptian investigators attempting to trace the cars origin, he said.

Marzouk was also sceptical about the involvement of international terror groups such as the Global Jihad as alleged by sections of the Israeli and Egyptian media. He pointed out that the Global Jihad, the Mujahideen Shura Council and the Soldiers of Islam could easily be one and the same. It takes four or five people to form such a group. They give it a name, then change it later on.

The Hamas leader also dismissed the widely circulated attribution of the attack to the opening of the Rafah border crossing by Egypts new leadership as it supposedly allowed terrorists to infiltrate the Sinai from the Gaza strip. The Rafah border policy hasnt changed since Mubaraks ouster, said Marzouk. The only difference is that the numbers have gone up from 350-450 to 1,000 on the days when the crossing is open. Besides, the opening of the Rafah border is irregular, and material supplies of food and medical equipment are channelled through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which Israel controls.

Marzouk explained that Israels motive in orchestrating the attack is to discourage Egypts new leaders from departing from the Israel-friendly policies that had been pursued by former President Hosni Mubarak. Its an effort to sabotage everything good that has happened, the improvement in dealing with the blockade and Gazas needs and how Egypt will handle the Palestinian file in the future. Theres the Sinai, the future of the peace settlement and even the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Israel wants to maintain the pre-revolution status quo. Its possible involvement in the Rafah attack should be understood within this context.

The Palestinian leader observed that Israel seemed to be succeeding in its effort, for the Rafah crossing had been closed immediately after the incident, resulting in the reinforcement of the collective punishment that Palestinians had endured in Gaza after Israel had besieged the coastal strip in 2007. The website of the Al Ahram newspaper quoted local residents as saying that the state-owned Arab Contractors company had been deploying heavy machinery to destroy tunnels linking the Sinai with Gaza, under the supervision of Egyptian military forces. Many of these tunnels were used in the past to ferry essential commodities to the coastal strip to counter the blockade that Israel imposed, though their misuse also has been rampant.

The Sinai incident has once again exposed the deep fissures within the Egyptian establishment, especially between the elected representatives and the military, which has enjoyed a privileged position in the country for long. Unlike the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has sent in the largest number of people to parliament and won a tough fight in the presidential contest, the army has studiously avoided pointing a finger at Israel over the August 5 attack.

On the contrary, it seems to be blaming Gaza-based groups, some affiliated with the Hamas, for the strike. A senior security official told the Egyptian daily al-Youm al-Sabaa that a combination of the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad, known for its strong links with Iran, and the Global Jihad in Egypt was responsible for the attack. The state-run MENA news agency appeared to corroborate this view, when it said that the attack had been perpetrated by jehadists who had infiltrated from Gaza through tunnels in collaboration with jehadist elements in the al-Mahdiya and Gabal Halal areas inside Egypt.

A Palestinian daily also reported that Egypts General Intelligence was seeking the extradition of three members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades the armed wing of the Hamas. The three include Raed Attar, who has been in Israels crosshairs because of his alleged involvement in the 2006 abduction of its soldier Gilad Shalit. While Egypts civilian leaders and military are likely to differ deeply on the approach towards the Gaza-based Palestinian Hamas, they are, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, expected to work together to root out all elements of insecurity within the Sinai.

Long years of neglect during the Mubarak years has alienated the local Bedouin population from the government. The area has also become a hotbed of weapons smuggling and drug trafficking into the Gaza Strip through the network of tunnels. Following the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the instability in Libya is also generating a heavy flow of weaponry into the Sinai.

The Al Arabiya television station, quoting local residents, reported that weapons such as Grinov machine guns and anti-aircraft missiles are pouring in from Libya. Smuggling gangs are pushing M16 rifles and a variety of less potent machine guns from Sudan as well. Besides, further destabilisation of the Sinai, known for its exotic landscape and famed beaches, can undermine tourism, the lifeline of Egypts economy.

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian establishment has descended heavily on the Sinai, mounting simultaneous air and ground assaults, apparently against anti-government militant networks. Egyptian security sources estimate that more than 2,000 Islamists reside in the Sinai. For the first time since the 1973 campaign against Israel, fighter jets have been deployed in this desert zone. On August 9, the Israeli Security Cabinet approved the request from Defence Minister Ehud Barak to allow the deployment of helicopter gunships by Egypt in the Sinai. The necessity of an Israeli approval over Egyptian sovereign territory has reinvigorated the debate in Egypt over the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, which limit the deployment of personnel and types of weaponry in the Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood has already expressed its dissatisfaction with the status quo, when it said in its statement that the fact that our forces in the Sinai lack the personnel and the equipment to protect the region or guard our borders makes it imperative to review the terms of our accords with Israel.

Separately, Essam El-Erian, the acting head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood, called for the evolution of a national vision of the Sinai and its residents, and Palestine and its people, and a new approach vis-a-vis the gangs protected by certain people in power and the lax homeland security. His comments followed major changes that President Morsy had decreed in the countrys security establishment. Morsy sacked Egypts intelligence chief, the head of the Republican Guard, the commander of the military police and the Governor of North Sinai. The new appointees included Major-General Ahmed Mohamed Zaki as chief of the Presidential Guard, Mohamed Raafat Abdel-Wahid as acting head of the General Intelligence Service, and Ambassador Rifaa Al-Tahtawi as head of the Office of the President of the Republic.

Some FJP officials have called Morsys revamp revolutionary. However, the jury is still out on whether the security changes that have been instituted are merely a charade born out of the necessity to cool the inflamed public sentiment or a serious and deeply thought-out move that would not only challenge the existing military top brass but also the status quo vis-a-vis Israel.

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