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Friday, 19 August 2011

In Sinai, security is like a house built upon the sand

Israeli soldiers and medical personnel transport a soldier who got injured during an ambush on a civilian bus north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat, as they arrive at a hospital in the southern city of Beersheva on Aug. 18, 2011.Dudu Grunshpan/REUTERS
Gunmen snuck across Egypt’s border and killed seven people in southern Israel, provoking quick strikes in response that left at least 13 others dead. The attack highlights the increasing lawlessness in Egypt’s border region after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak.

The flurry of violence started on Thursday afternoon near the quiet resort town of Eilat, a place so far removed from conflict that onlookers initially did not recognize the distinctive sound of Kalashnikov fire when attackers sprayed bullets at a bus carrying Israeli soldiers.

The hours that followed saw at least three other locations inside Israel hit with automatic rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and even an anti-tank missile in a series of co-ordinated attacks.

Israel’s military responded with air raids and ground assaults and said that those responsible for the incursion had been killed. News agencies reported that medics listed a two-year-old boy among those who died in the Israeli strikes. Two Egyptian border police were also killed in the crossfire.

Israel said its intelligence services had specific information showing that the attackers had come from Gaza. What remained mysterious, however, was how the militants travelled at least 250 kilometres across the Sinai Peninsula to their objective, a desert highway near the Egyptian border.

Such a journey by heavily armed militants would have been more difficult in the days when Mr. Mubarak’s regime controlled the borderlands with brute force, analysts say. The Egyptian revolution may have brought hope for democracy, but it has also undermined the police state that kept watch over the smugglers, bandits and restive Bedouin tribesmen along a frontier that could become a flashpoint between wary neighbours.

“The whole police force in Egypt was taken apart and decimated,” said David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is just the latest symptom of rising lawlessness.”

The Sinai Peninsula, a dry spearhead of territory, changed hands several times during three decades of intermittent war between Israel and Egypt. It finally remained under Egyptian control after Israeli forces withdrew under the terms of a peace treaty in 1982, but Cairo’s rule over the local nomads has always been tenuous. While the Sinai’s population is now estimated at perhaps 500,000, including maybe 200,000 Bedouin, nobody knows precisely how people inhabit the arid landscape of mountains and sand dunes because they are notoriously unwilling to deal with the government.

Nor has the government endeared itself to the people in Sinai. Even as tourism brought jobs to the region, bureaucrats in Cairo ensured that their friends reaped the benefits. Bedouin pitched camps near the major resort projects, looking for work, but only managed to find the most menial positions. They were often forbidden from dealing with tourists and kept out of jobs in the government and security forces.

This gave rise to what one analyst called a “mercenary culture,” a series of illegal industries in the Sinai: drug trafficking, human smuggling and arms dealing. It became a transit point for European prostitutes headed to Arab clients and guns destined for Palestinian militants.

The degree of co-operation between Islamist extremists and the profiteering outlaws in the Sinai has become a topic of speculation among experts; some say al-Qaeda and related groups have infiltrated local tribes, while others say the locals are simply willing to deal with whomever pays them.

When bombings killed about 100 people at Sinai resorts in 2004 and 2005, police rounded up hundreds of Bedouin, suspecting them of involvement with Islamist groups. Such sweeping arrests became commonplace, analysts say, as the Mubarak regime tried to impose order with heavy-handed tactics.

“Egypt never really had control of the peninsula,” said Dina Samak, editor of an online political journal in Cairo. “Mubarak was capable of hiding the problems in the Sinai, and now everything that used to happen underground is bubbling up to the surface.”

Crime has surged since the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings. After a pipeline bombing in February, Israel made an exception to the terms of its 1982 withdrawal and agreed to the deployment of Egyptian army battalions along the border to maintain security. The extra troops did not have the desired effect, however; more pipeline attacks followed, along with brazen jailbreaks.

In a prescient article, published little more than a week before the latest attacks, Alex Joffe at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research warned that a “security vacuum” allowed more freedom for Islamists operating in the region.

Such complaints became louder in the hours after the cross-border incursion on Thursday.

“The incident underscores the weak Egyptian hold on Sinai and the broadening of the activities of terrorists,” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.

Mr. Joffe now says the only solution will be for Egypt to re-establish the security apparatus that fell apart during the revolution.

“The pharaohs had the same problem in that region, and they would give you the same answer,” Mr. Joffe said. “The only thing they understand is somebody smacking them on the head.”

Such opinions are sharply opposed by people such as Ms. Samak, however; as somebody involved in the Egyptian uprising, she says her country should strive to include the disenfranchised rather than beating them down.

“The regime’s approach to this problem has been purely a security approach,” Ms. Samak said. “We need to adopt a political approach.”

ORIGINAL POST: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/in-sinai-security-is-like-a-house-built-upon-the-sand/article2134476/


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