Remote and spectacularly scenic, with rugged mountains, rolling desert vistas, enchanting oases and inviting sandy beaches, the Sinai Peninsula is a dream destination. Inhabited by Bedouin tribes whose respect for borders is at best minimal, it was little more than a strategic buffer after the 1956 Arab-Israeli war. But with its capture by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, the Sinai soon found a place in the sun as a tourist mecca.
Israel developed it in methodical fashion, prompting a torrent of Israelis to take advantage of its beauty. They continued to pour into the Sinai even after Israel gave it up after signing a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.
But in the past eight years, and particularly since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as president in 2011, the Sinai has morphed into a “terror zone,” according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
With the erosion of Egyptian sovereignty there and the resultant power vacuum, the Sinai has degenerated into a haven for terrorists and common criminals – who have used it as a platform to attack tourists and infrastructure – and a virtual no-go zone for tourists.
Recently, Israel’s Counterterrorism Bureau urged Israeli travellers to leave the Sinai immediately, citing plots by terrorist organizations to wreak mayhem and bloodshed, while the head of Israeli military intelligence, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, disclosed that Israel has foiled more than 10 plots in the Sinai in the past two months and that terrorists are “strengthening their hold” there.
Kochavi delivered his analysis shortly after rockets launched from the Sinai hit Eilat, landing harmlessly near a residential neighbourhood.
Channel 10, an Israeli television station, claimed they had been smuggled out of post-Gadhafi Libya and were fired by the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian group that participated in the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit in 2006.
Lamentably, the targeting of Eilat was a case of déjà vu. Two years ago, rockets hit Eilat and the adjacent Jordanian town of Aqaba, killing one person and wounding four.
The most recent incident in Eilat was the gravest one of its kind in southern Israel since Aug. 18, 2011, when gunmen from Sinai staged brazen cross-border attacks in which eight Israelis were slain and 31 were injured. In hot pursuit, Israel killed some of the attackers, but in the crossfire, five Egyptian policemen were fatally shot.
The battle elicited a sharp response from Egypt and triggered mob violence in Cairo that resulted in the sacking of Israel’s embassy, an unprecedented and worrisome development in Israel’s pivotal bilateral relationship with Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state.
The treaty ushered in a period of calm and stability along Israel’s 240-kilometre frontier with Egypt, but in the Sinai, the tranquility was violently and ominously broken.
On Oct. 5, 1985, an Egyptian soldier, Sulayman Khatir, machine-gunned a party of vacationers in Ras Burqa, a Red Sea beach resort, killing seven Israelis, including four children. Khatir, deemed mentally ill, was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labour. Ten days after the verdict was handed down, he was found dead in his cell.
On Oct. 7, 2004, Palestinian terrorists drove a bomb-laden truck into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Taba, just south of Eilat, killing 31 guests, including 12 from Israel, and wounding 159 others. On the same day, a car bomb killed two Israelis at Ras al-Shitan, near Nuweiba.
Egypt arrested 2,400 suspects, primarily Bedouins, whose relations with Cairo tend to be poor.
On July 23, 2005, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an organization supposedly linked to Al Qaeda, killed 88 people and wounded more than 200, the majority of them Egyptians, in Sharm el-Sheikh. Egyptian authorities erected a barrier around the town, cutting if off from Bedouin encampments.
On April 24, 2006, three bomb explosions in Dahab killed 23 tourists and wounded 80, mostly Egyptian nationals. Egyptian security officials claimed the bombings were the work of a radical Islamic outfit, Jamat al-Tawhid.
Since Israel’s pullout from Gaza and its imposition of a naval blockade around Gaza, the Sinai has become something of a no-man’s land, notwithstanding efforts by Egypt to secure it.
Weapons and munitions are smuggled into Gaza via a maze of tunnels in the Sinai. During the 2008-09 war in Gaza, Israeli aircraft bombed the tunnels, but with the end of hostilities, smuggling operations resumed with a vengeance.
This is not Israel’s only problem.
The multimillion-dollar pipeline in the Sinai that supplies Israel with about 40 per cent of its natural gas has been bombed no less than 14 times since the signing of a commercial agreement between Israel and Egypt in 2005.
Ten days ago, a month and a half after the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament voted to stop the export of gas to Israel, the Egyptian state-owned company that ships it to Israel announced that further supplies would no longer be sent to Israel due to an unresolved commercial dispute with its Israeli partner.
But the following day, an Egyptian cabinet minister said that Israel could negotiate a new contract at a higher price, suggesting that the cutoff, a disquieting moment in Israeli-Egyptian relations, was a shameless gambit on Egypt’s part.
The lawlessness that has descended on the Sinai has forced the Israeli government to bolster security in a region of Israel that has generally been quiet.
The road that runs parallel to Egypt’s frontier has been moved eastward by 750 metres. Israel has significantly built up its forces along the Egyptian border and is co-operating with Egypt to keep terrorists out of the Sinai. Since 2008, in contravention of the peace treaty, Israel has permitted Egypt to deploy thousands of troops in the Sinai.
Work on a $350-million barrier from Eilat to Gaza, originally designed to keep out African refugees, has been accelerated and will be ready soon.
In a sense, however, Israel’s hands are tied. Given the political uncertainties in post-Mubarak Egypt, Israel may have no alternative but to exercise restraint in response to future terrorist attacks emanating from the Sinai, fearing that retaliatory strikes may jeopardize the peace treaty, a cornerstone of its security.