by Marc Brenner
by Marc Brenner
KISSUFIM, Israel, May 27, 2012 (AFP)
The growing wave of lawlessness sweeping the Sinai Peninsula has put Israel on edge, with the Jewish state hoping Egypt’s new government will ensure a swift crackdown — whatever the
outcome of the presidential elections.
For Israel, its 240-kilometre (150 miles) southern border with Sinai poses two major threats — it is both a key conduit for a growing influx of African migrants, and also an appealing target for militant groups.
“The Egyptian issue is far more disturbing than the Iranian question,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.
Some 15 months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the arid and mountainous peninsula, which covers approximately 60,000 square kilometres (23,166 miles), is still largely beyond the control of Egyptian security forces.
“The Sinai has become Egypt’s Wild West, a lawless region. Bedouin tribes run the peninsula as if it belongs to them,” said an Israeli security source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Under terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the area was demilitarized, but today the peninsula is anything but.
Near the northern desert town of El-Arish, a gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan has been sabotaged no less than 14 times since Mubarak’s fall in February 2011.
No-one has claimed responsibility for the series of attacks but Israeli security officials suspect the bombings were carried out by radicalized Bedouins, or those with growing ties to extremist Islamic organizations.
They say armed Palestinian groups in the neighboring Gaza Strip are seeking to open a new front against Israel through the Sinai.
“A launchpad for terror”
“The Sinai peninsula has become a launching pad for terror against our citizens,” Netanyahu said last month after a cross-border rocket attack on Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Officials within Israel’s military intelligence believe the rockets came from the arsenal of slain Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
They say thousands of Libyan rockets and anti-aircraft missiles have reached Gaza through the Sinai desert.
“Terrorist groups know that our ability to respond is limited by fear of a military escalation with Egypt,” a senior officer in the Israeli military’s southern command told AFP.
In August 2011, gunmen sneaked across the frontier and carried out a series of shooting ambushes on a road near the Egyptian border some 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Eilat, killing eight Israelis and wounding 25.
As Israeli troops hunted for the gunmen, they inadvertently killed six Egyptian policemen, sparking a diplomatic crisis which culminated several weeks later with the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by angry protesters.
Anxious to see security restored to Sinai as quickly as possible, Israel agreed to the deployment of an additional seven Egyptian battalions there, according to Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
“We opted for dialogue,” he said. “We have excellent cooperation with the Egyptian army, especially in terms of intelligence.”
As well as the drugs and weapons which have flowed across the border into southern Israel, generating significant income for the Bedouin, the trafficking of African migrants and women from eastern Europe have become commonplace in recent years.
In an effort to halt the flood, Israel has been building a high-tech electronic border fence which is due to be completed in the coming months.
“We will complete construction of the fence within a few months and soon we will start returning the infiltrators to the countries from which they came,” Netanyahu said on Thursday.
“This is a very sophisticated device that responds effectively to the threat,” said General Eran Ofir.
“Wherever the barrier has been installed, no infiltration has been indicated.”