The Sinai: For Israel, Long a Buffer but Now a Battlefield — Israel Firmly on Egypt’s Side

[This article was originally written for The Jerusalem Report by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books.]

EILAT — The Israel Defense Forces’ Division No. 80 is stationed on the steep slopes of the Eilat Mountains, three kilometers west of Israel’s southern port and resort town, on the shores of the Red Sea.

The division, also known as the Edomite Division (named after the ancient tribes who lived in the area in Biblical times), is responsible for overseeing Israel’s longest borders — with Jordan and Egypt — which total a length of nearly 500 kilometers.

Both Arab countries have signed peace treaties with Israel: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Since then, they have maintained full diplomatic relations with Israel.

They have kept close through clandestine military, security and intelligence cooperation. This tight coordination is largely due to the fact that Cairo and Amman have identified important areas in which they share crucial common interests with Israel.

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Update: A newsletter based in France, Intelligence On Line, reports that Israeli military intelligence’s electronic intercept Unit 8200 is assisting Egyptian intelligence by eavesdropping on and tracking suspected terrorists now known as SP — the “Sinai Province” of the Islamic State, formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdas. This group swore allegiance to IS a few months ago.

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The shared interests with Egypt and Jordan are especially relevant due to dangers and threats posed by the rise of radical and militant Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS), and the various jihadist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and Hamas.

Still, there is a big difference between Israel’s perception of these dangers, and the reality facing Jordan to the east and particularly Egypt to the west.

Though the danger of IS — now struggling in its bloody battles in Syria and Iraq and turning its eyes on Jordan — indeed looms on the horizon, so far Israeli security sources see no evidence of its presence in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Thus, as far as Israel is concerned, the Jordanian frontier is indeed a real “peace border.” For the last several years, there have been no terrorist incidents or attempts to infiltrate Israel from Jordan.

Even the criminal activity – mainly drug smuggling – has been very low. The ultimate evidence for this tranquil reality is the fact that there is no fence separating the two countries. If and when the national budget permits it, Israel plans to erect a fence along the Jordanian border – but knowing Israel’s national priorities, especially after this month’s election, when social and economic matters may top the agenda, the notion of constructing a fence between Israel and Jordan is very far away.

The Egyptian border, on the other hand, is much less calm and much more worrying, despite the decades-old peace treaty.

Two years ago, Israel completed the construction of a 200 km-long fence from Eilat to Gaza. The construction costs topped 2 billion Shekels (about $500 million) and posed a serious engineering challenge, to overcome the natural topography of deep canyons and high mountains, set among sharp angles.

A visit to the area shows an impressive piece of work – a fence hundreds of kilometers long and 3-4 meters high, equipped with electronic sensors and cameras.

When the fence was originally planned and designed by the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, it was designated to stop the flood of African immigrants and job seekers mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.

Prior to construction of the fence, between 6,000 and upwards of 10,000 people – sometime entire families – were able to easily infiltrate Israel from the Sinai Peninsula. Last year, only 12 infiltrators managed to reach Israel. In that sense, the fence has proved to be justified and effective.

But in the last three years, the fence has become even more important to stop (or at least scale down) the threat of terrorism. In the twilight times between the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011 (as part of what was termed the Arab Spring) and the installation of the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Muhammad Morsi (who is now sentenced to death by an Egyptian court), a terrorist group emerged in Sinai. It called itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdas (translated literally to mean Supporters of the Sacred House — generally a reference to the Muslim claim on Jerusalem).

An Islamic State flag (photo at MEMRI.org)

An Islamic State flag (photo at MEMRI.org)

The group renamed itself three months ago to become the Sinai Province (SP) of the Islamic State, after pledging allegiance to IS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Two motives triggered its transformation: Ideology and a hope for financial infusion.

The Islamic State, which split three years ago from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, introduced a new notion to radical Islam. Instead of advocating the idea of transcending global Jihad (holy war) – i.e. world terrorism with no borders — IS preached the creation of territorial units which would adhere to the 7th century fundamental ideas that ruled the region with the spread of the Prophet Muhammad’s Islam.

IS not only preached and talked.  In 2014, it began to walk the walk, and embarked on implementing its philosophy in the large areas which it conquered in Iraq and Syria.

The idea of territorial Islamic units had a great appeal for Ansar Beit al-Maqdas, but regardless of its name change, cosmetic alterations and facelift, the group’s aims have remained the same. First and foremost, its operations are focused on fighting the Egyptian government and military, with the goal of destabilizing the central regime, primarily to seize control of Sinai. Its secondary goal is to fight Israel.

The Sinai Peninsula is a huge arid desert of 60,000 square kilometers (more than twice the collective size of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank), which for centuries has served as a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, carrying the weight of strategic importance and historical significance. It spreads between the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Israel and mainland Egypt, in close proximity to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

(courtesy iris.org.il)

(courtesy iris.org.il)

Today the Sinai is home to 360,000 inhabitants, mostly nomads (Bedouin), of which 80,000 are Palestinians and foreigners to the peninsula. These inhabitants live below the poverty line, in conditions substandard even to the deteriorating Egyptian economy. The locals live basically in tribal societies, earning meager livings working for the declining tourist industry and from the smuggling of goods, drugs and weapons, as well as human trafficking.

The SP is considered to be a small group, consisting of fewer than 1,000 warriors, assistants and sympathizers. It draws its support from the local Bedouin tribes, the two largest being the Tarabin and the Azazma, which have branched family ties in the Israeli Negev desert. Its main presence is in the northern parts of Sinai around the district city of El Arish, with small cells in the central peninsula.

Despite its efforts, the group has no influence in the southern part of Sinai or in the Red Sea strip leading to Eilat, which is home to the bulk of Sinai’s tourism industry and is one of the most important sources of revenue generation for the Egyptian economy. As such, the Egyptian government tries its best to co-opt the local tribesmen by offering them jobs in order minimize the temptation of aiding SP. So far the policy has been successful.

Before pledging allegiance to IS, the SP supported its terror ventures by robbing ATM machines and banks, auto theft, trading in stolen goods, and drug smuggling. Western sources monitoring SP say that so far, there is no evidence that its merger with IS has showered it with the expected bonanza. For the short term, at least, it seems it has been forced to rely on its old and familiar sources of income.

Small though it is, the Sinai Province has turned out to be a lethal battleground.

Over the course of 2014, its militants killed 350 Egyptian soldiers, policemen, security servicemen and government officials. The group’s tactics have shown a constant improvement from small-size ambushes and casual rifle shootings to car bombings and relatively well-coordinated large-scale attacks against Egyptian military bases and police stations. Some of these raids were intended not only to kill, but also to capture weapons.

A milestone attack by SP occurred in January 2015, against the local headquarters of the Egyptian army in El Arish. It was a well-executed and coordinated operation, which included exploding car bombs and firing mortar shells.

Egypt's President Sisi, in his military days

Egypt’s President Sisi, in his military days

The incident ended in the deaths of 44 Egyptian soldiers and officers, and the looting of army weapons and armored vehicles. The attack shocked President Abdulfatah al Sisi, who openly declared war against SP, promising towipe out the group and restore law and order to the area.

Egyptian officials claim that SP is supported by foreign jihadists that entered Sinai from Yemen and Somalia. But Western intelligence sources have told me that there is no evidence of foreign presence. “Basically SP is a local organization,” said one.

The Egyptian government under Sisi has also accused Hamas of supporting SP. This accusation is understandable, judging from the war the president has raged against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a Gaza extension. But the Western intelligence sources say that although such ties between Hamas and SP existed in the past, they have all but ceased at the present. If at all, SP might maintain contact with some renegade radical Gaza Islamists – those which, incidentally, Hamas has been trying to eliminate.

In the last two months, there have been indications that the Egyptian army has intensified its campaign and managed to inflict heavy casualties to SP.

The success of the Egyptian offensive was clearly helped by Israel’s readiness to make some major concessions.

It was President Sisi himself who earlier this month revealed to the Washington Post that Israel had agreed to let his army deploy more troops and helicopters in Sinai, particularly in the northern part — well beyond the limits set by the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.  Sisi added that he regularly consults with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

This Israeli concession is no wonder. It is an essential Israeli interest that Sinai remain a quiet arena with no terrorism. But with all the upgraded security cooperation and coordination between the two countries along the border and at the military headquarters and government levels.

Israel cannot rely on Egyptian determination and capabilities to defeat SP.

The fence is just one measure Israel has implemented to secure its border. It has also built fortified posts along the border, manned by IDF troops, who day and night patrol the area and lay ambushes to prevent Sinai-based terrorists from attacking southern Israel.

Over the last few years, armed groups — be they Palestinian militants, the local organization now known as SP, or drug smugglers — have attacked IDF positions and patrols, killing soldiers and civilians. Last year alone, 10 rockets were launched from Sinai in the direction of Eilat.

In 2007, before the fence was erected, a Palestinian terrorist carrying a bomb easily crossed the border and blew himself up in an Israeli bakery, killing three civilians.

“Our worst nightmare,” a senior IDF officer told reporters during a visit along the border fence, “is that SP will try to repeat its deadly attack from last January, but this time against our troops or against Eilat. Our mission is to prevent that. We are vigilant all year long, but especially now, before the Passover holiday [which begins April 3rd], when hundreds of thousands of Israeli and foreign tourists will visit Eilat.”

This mission is made all the more challenging by the fact that both Israeli and Egyptian intelligence admit that they know very little about SP, its structure, members and levels of command. They also admit that it is not easy to penetrate the group and collect information, considering the close-knit environment in which it exists.

March 20, 2015

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