Israel's Sinai Dilemma

Order needs to be restored in the Sinai Peninsula - yet Israel will have to accept a much larger Egyptian military presence on their borders in the meantime. Is the trade off worth it?

Egyptian forces in Al-Kharuba village
Robin Simcox
On 13 September 2011 16:20

Relations between Egypt and Israel are somewhat difficult at the moment. Yet it is not just the rioting at the Israeli embassy that is causing diplomatic concern. It is the situation in the Sinai Penisula.

An increasingly lawless region post-Mubarak, the Sinai was used as a base for the terrorist attacks near Eilat last month, and US intelligence officials are increasingly focused on the development of terrorist groups loosely aligned to al-Qaeda in the region.

The Sinai Peninsula borders both Israel and Gaza, bridging Africa and Asia. The region was previously under Israeli control following the Six Day War of 1967, but was returned to Egypt as part of the 1978 Camp David accords. The Sinai is divided into north and south governorates, and comprises four military zones. Zone A (territory to the east of the Suez Canal running north-south) is Egyptian, and possesses a 22,000 man infantry division. Zone B (central Sinai) has four battalions in support of the Egyptian police. Zone C (to the west of the border with Gaza and Israel) is a demilitarised zone under joint control between the Egyptian police and Multinational Force Observers. Zone D (a narrow strip on the east side of the Egypt-Israel border) has four Israeli infantry battalions, including along the Gaza border.

Al-Ahmram carries some revealing quotes this week about both governments’ willingness to allow Zone C to be remiliatrized. An unnamed government official was quoted as saying that due to Israeli concern over ‘seriously dangerous Islamist militant elements into Sinai’, the Egyptian military presence in Sinai has drastically increased, something that ‘will be the case for a while at least.’ Apparently, a phone call by Prime Minister Netanyhu and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi [head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt] ended with Tantawi saying that troops would be kept in the Sinai. Netanyahu is so concerned about the situation in the Sinai that he is willing to agree – despite this contravening the peace treaty.

Israel’s willingness for Egypt to remilitarize Zone C shows how their strategic position has deteriorated following Mubarak’s departure. Yet this is still a necessary move, both strategically and economically. The string of attacks on the gas pipelines in the Sinai which supply Israel, Syria and Jordan must be brought under control. Furthermore, a lawless Sinai could become a fresh source of terrorism and could permanently rupture Egyptian – Israeli relations (see the Egyptian domestic reaction to Israel’s accidental killing of an Egyptian officer and two policemen in their pursuit of the Eilat terrorists).

The departure of Mubarak, and the potential for a freer and more democratic Egypt has to be viewed as a positive development. Yet there is no hiding from the fact that it has also strategically weakened the only existing democracy in the region.

For more on this emerging Sinai threat, see my piece here – including exclusive interviews with Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, and Ely Karmon, a Senior Research Scholar at the IICT in Herzliya

Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society, a British-based foreign policy think tank. This post is cross-posted on 'The Scoop' by agreement.

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