Friday, August 16, 2013

Mordechai Kedar: The Curse of Sinai




by Mordechai Kedar


Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)
Read the article in Spanish (translated by Shula Hamilton)


 The Sinai Peninsula is a huge area, approximately 61,000 square kilometers, which is almost three times the area of the State of Israel, and its population is approximately 550,000, less than one tenth of the population of Israel. The residents of Sinai, despite  being Egyptian citizens for the most part, are not of Egyptian origin: their Arabic dialect is Saudi Arabian, their culture is different from Egyptian culture and they identify with the state of Egypt about as much as the Bedouins in the Negev identify with the state of Israel. Why is this so? The reason is that the Bedouin will never identify with a state, since the state symbolizes order and the rule of law, whereas the desert is spontaneous and the law that rules within it is the law of the tribes. Only when the Bedouin is part of the governmental system and enjoys its benefits does he identify with the state, for example in Jordan, and even there it is not always guaranteed.

The Sinai Peninsula was never an integral part of Egypt; it was annexed only in the beginning of the twentieth century, when Britain - which ruled Egypt at the time - wanted to keep some distance between the Ottoman Empire and the Suez Canal. The Egyptian state never tried to impose Egyptian law and order upon Sinai and this is easy to prove: There are few roads in Sinai and between those roads are great expanses that are inaccessible to the branches of government: police, health services, educational services and infrastructure. Even the Egyptian army viewed Sinai only as a training area and an arena for battle with Israel, and in general, it can be said that Sinai has always been an unwanted burden to Egypt, a step-son who was not expected to amount to much.

After Israel conquered Sinai in the Six Day War (in June of 1967) the Sinai Bedouins came to an agreement with the IDF: if Israel would allow the Bedouins to have autonomy and live life as they pleased, they would not object to Israeli rule over the area. Israel ignored the poppy plantations that were cultivated in Sinai, which supplied a significant part of world opium consumption, and the Bedouins ignored the Israeli tourists on the Red Sea beaches who did not behave according to the acceptable rules of Bedouin modesty. The many tourist villages that were in Taba, in in Nawiba, in di-Zahab and in Ofira (Sharm e-Sheikh) at that time, provided a good livelihood to the Bedouins. The proximity of IDF bases also brought economic benefit to the Bedouins . The good relations between the Bedouins and Israel was based on the fact that Israel had no intentions of trying to turn the Bedouins into Israelis culturally, and that Israel let them live their lives according to the principles and laws that they have lived by from time immemorial.

An important detail to note is that the border between Israel and Egypt was a line on the map, not a physical fence or wall, and this enabled the Sinai Bedouins, together with their family members who lived in the Negev, to support themselves by smuggling goods, drugs, women and illegal immigrants seeking work into Israel. The Israeli authorities knew about this smuggling industry, but for years did very little in order to stop it, because it served the economic interest of both sides and because of the desire to maintain good relations with the Sinai Bedouins, who brought intelligence information to Israel and not just goods.

When Israel withdrew from Sinai in 1982, sovereignty over the peninsula was restored to Egypt but the Egyptian state did not return to the open areas or to the high mountains of the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian government limited itself to the scattered cities that were located on the shores: on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea - Rafiah, el-Arish, Sheikh Zayed, on the coast of the Red Sea - Taba, Dahab, Nawab, Sharm-e-Sheikh, and the coast of the Suez Bay -- e-Tur, Ras Sudar, Abu Rudis, Port Fuad. In an attempt to deal with the problem of unemployment in Egypt, beginning in the days of Mubarak, the Egyptian government urged many youths to go to Sinai in order to work in the oil industry, the quarries and the tourism industry. The Egyptian government initiated agricultural projects in Sinai that depended on water brought from the Nile, and the entry of thousands of Egyptians into Sinai was perceived by the Bedouins as an attempt to overwhelm them, push them out of the area and deprive them of their livelihood. This is how the tension between the state of Egypt and the Bedouin population began in Sinai after the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula.

The tension between the Egyptian government and the Bedouins increased after the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993), when international funds began flowing into the Gaza Strip. These funds were translated into a demand for goods, mainly from Israel, but from Egypt as well, because of the low prices there. The Bedouins who were residents of north Sinai saw themselves as the natural intermediary between Gaza and Egypt, while the Egyptian officials and police and the mukhabarat wanted to profit from the brokerage, trade and transport. The tension increased when the trade with Gaza began to include weapons that the organizations who objected to the PLO , mainly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, wanted to import into the Strip, because they were imported from Sinai, not from Israel. Even while Israel still governed the Strip, the tunnel industry had begun to blossom, and smuggling into the Strip turned into a very important source of income for the Bedouins of north Sinai.

Ever since the Hamas movement took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, it has become the Bedouins' senior partner in the smuggling business, because a great part of the Hamas movement's and the Hamas government's income comes from taxes that are imposed on tunnel excavators, their operators and the goods that are smuggled through them. In parallel, tens of jihad organization operatives who oppose Hamas and are persecuted by the Hamas government, fled the Gaza Strip and found refuge in Sinai among the Bedouins of the el-Arish - Sheikh Zabed area. This way, they remained close to their area of operations, but in a secure place. The Hamas government sent intelligence people to north Sinai, both to investigate their activities, and to organize the smuggling from the Egyptian side, and it was done under the open eyes of the Egyptian security people - eyes that were covered with dollars.

In parallel, the Hamas movement tried to turn Sinai into a secondary base from which to attack Israel, and because it was sovereign Egyptian territory, Israel was unable to respond. Each time Israel intensified their search for terrorists who shoot missiles into Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Hamas movement has tried to move the battle to Sinai by attacking buses and Israeli military patrols or launched missiles toward Israeli cities, to the detriment of Egyptian sovereignty, of course. And now, post-Mursi Egypt accuses Hamas of responsibility for the terrorist chaos in Sinai, and not without good cause.

In parallel, jihadists from other battlegrounds that had become too dangerous for them, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, began arriving in Sinai, during the previous decade, and have found refuge in Sinai, among the Bedouins. The jihadists brought with them the expertise that they had accumulated in the use of weapons, arming vehicles, producing bombs and preparing car bombs. In January and February 2010, the jihadist population of Sinai received significant reinforcements when hundreds of activists of radical Islamist organizations escaped from the prisons in Egypt that were broken into by the masses that flowed into the streets against the Mubarak government. For the Egyptians, this was the "Arab Spring"; for the jihadists it was the freedom to do whatever they pleased, both against Egypt and against Israel.

In order to receive donations, weapons and ammunition, the Sinai jihadists had to carry out terror attacks and form organizations. In October 2004, the Hilton Hotel of Taba and the vacationers at the Ras-el-Shaitan beach were attacked. In April 2006, terrorists carried out three terror attacks in the city of Dahab, where 27 people were killed and approximately 100 were injured. In April of 2010, two katyushas were launched from Sinai toward the port of Eilat, and one of them fell in the area of Aqaba, which is in Jordan. It seems that the attack in Aqaba was intentional. In August 2011, a unit of terrorists infiltrated from Sinai into Israel from north of the Ain Netafim checkpost on the Rafiah-Eilat road, and 8 Israelis were killed. In April 2012 a grad rocket was fired at Eilat and fell next to a residential area. In August 2012, when a terror attack was carried out on Egyptian soldiers who were stationed next to the intersection of the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders, 16 of them were killed and an Egyptian personnel carrier that was hijacked by the terrorists penetrated into Israel and was destroyed. It is important to note that the terrorists who carried out the action were wearing explosives belts.

During recent years, different organizations have blown up a gas pipe that brought energy from Egypt to Israel and Jordan. They were Bedouins, but it could very well be that the jihadists assisted them.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency in Egypt at the end of June 2012 was the best news for the jihad fighters of Sinai, since they knew very well that this government would not act against them with determination because of the close ideological relations between the Brotherhood and the jihadists: both sides believe in the supremacy of Islam over all the other religions, both believe in the religious obligation of jihad, both see Israel as an illegitimate entity and both are in favor of implementing Shari'a on all circles of life in the lands of Islam. And indeed, Mursi reined in the military's reactions against the jihadists in Sinai, and after they killed 16 soldiers in August 2012, Mursi even dismissed the military heads. The army waited for the right moment to get rid of Mursi and the jihadists that had jointly taken over in Sinai, and the opportunity came during the mass demonstrations that broke out in Egypt on the 30th of June, this year, 2013.

These days the army is busy clearing  Mursi's supporters out of the town squares of Cairo and Alexandria where they demonstrated during a month and a half, with many wounded. The jihadists of Sinai support the Muslim Brotherhood and their demand to return Mursi to the presidency. The army is convinced that there is a connection between the Brotherhood leadership and the organizations in Sinai, and the Brotherhood expects that the jihad organizations in Sinai will attack the army to ease the pressure on the demonstrators in the public squares. Therefore, there is a fair chance that these organizations will take revenge on the army for breaking up the demonstrations and for those who were killed among the Brotherhood. The revenge might come in the form of attacks on military and police targets in Sinai, or in the form of an attack on army camps and military vehicles inside of  Egypt. Sometime around mid-July, 2013 the army claimed that a truck loaded with Grad missiles on its way to the area of Cairo was apprehended at the checkpoints between Ismailia and Cairo. If the claim is true, then we may expect the jihadist's missiles will fly not only in the direction of Eilat but also in the direction of Cairo and Alexandria.

The jihadists of Sinai are not waiting for the Egyptian army with roses in their hands. They are preparing for a battle in which to achieve a victory will cost many losses. They are entrenched in the mountain crevices, in places where a tank is like a sitting duck. Fighting forces would need to arrive on foot while fighting their way up the slope of the mountain, or by helicopters that could be shot down relatively easily by firing from the ground. There are rumors that Israel is also involved in the events in Sinai, in intelligence and also operationally, and the activities that Israel has done and perhaps also will do, are coordinated with the Egyptian army.

The Two Main Jihad Organizations that Operate in Sinai:

"Majlis Shura al-Mujahadeen fi aknaf beit al-maqdas" - the "Advisory Council of the jihad Fighters in the Jerusalem Area": an organization whose basis is in Gaza with many operatives in Sinai, took responsibility for launching the Grad on Eilat one week ago (the beginning of August. 2013), and is responsible for a number of attacks on police stations in north Sinai. This organization has a Palestinian agenda with a touch of Egyptian, and it operates under the ideological inspiration of global jihad.

"Jamat al-tuhid waljihad" - "the Unity and Jihad Group": this group is part of the larger group - "jamat al-tuhid wal-jihad fi 'Arab Afriqiya" - "the Unity and Jihad Group in West Africa". An organization whose opinions and methods of operation are aligned with those of al-Qaeda.

Another group that has been mentioned in recent days is "Dar'a Sinai" - "The Shield of Sinai". Its involvement in terror attacks is not clear.



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Dr. Kedar is available for lectures


Dr. Mordechai Kedar
(Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.


Additional articles by Dr. Kedar

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.


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