Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hornik - Sinai: From Buffer to Badlands

P. David Hornik
27 July '11

“The main, immediate beneficiaries of what is known as the ‘Arab spring’ are Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip,” Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai reported on Ynet the other day.

His and similar reports haven’t attracted much attention, and perhaps it’s understandable. There’s been a mass murder in Norway, and, in Israel, raucous public protests over housing prices. But the deterioration in Gaza is surely worthy of note, and, for Israelis, likely to be more significant than the cost of flats.

Ben-Yishai, noting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since Mubarak’s downfall, says “the group’s influence prompted Egypt’s government to completely halt construction” of an underground metal wall between Egyptian Sinai and Gaza. Built with U.S. assistance, it was supposed to block smuggling tunnels.

Now, though, “the Egyptian regime is making no effort to curb new tunnels and has virtually suspended its battle against smuggling…to the Strip.”

This is bad enough, but in addition, “Egyptian security forces preoccupied with domestic developments [have] completely lost their hold on the Sinai….” That means, along with the enhanced global jihad presence in the peninsula, that

[s]ome 300,000 Bedouins belonging to four or five large tribes are now the Sinai’s true rulers. These tribes’ main income is based on smuggling in general, and on smuggling to Gaza in particular, and they quickly exploited the security vacuum in the peninsula in the wake of the revolution.

Last February when the “Arab spring” was still young, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was in Cairo harshly berating Israel for not reacting enthusiastically. But if Israel wasn’t celebrating the events at that time, it has even less reason to do so now.

“As a result,” says Ben-Yishai, of the abandoned work on the wall and Sinai’s descent into a Wild West,

arms shipments to the Strip have been surging…: everything that has been sent by the Iranians and their emissaries in recent years and was hidden by the Bedouins…has flowed freely into Gaza in the past five months. Meanwhile, new shipments arrived and were transferred to Hamas and Islamic Jihad without delay or a need to hide them.

Hence the terror groups have “doubled their rocket arsenals” so that they now “possess some 10,000 rockets of all types, a similar number to the Hezbollah arsenal in the Second Lebanon War,” including “thousands of mid-range Grad rockets and a few heavy Fajr rockets that…can reach the outskirts of…Tel Aviv.”

The Iranian-supplied merchandise also includes “three times (!) the quantity of industrial explosives compared to the quantity handed over throughout 2010,” along with “large quantities of anti-aircraft weapons…creating a greater threat for Air Force choppers and jets.”

Another Israeli military correspondent, Haaretz’s Amos Harel, cites “senior defense officials” blaming “[t]he revolutions in the Arab world, especially the Egyptian security forces’ diminished control in the Sinai” for allowing the Palestinians to “exponentially increase” the smuggling into Gaza.

And to the Egyptian example Harel adds another, confirming earlier reports that

the civil war in Libya opened new opportunities for weapons after the Libyan army lost control of vast weapons stores in the east of the country. Local arms dealers made contact with Gaza smugglers, and new weapons began to flow by a much shorter and easier route than the ones originating in Iran.

The Israeli government, too, has chimed in, with the home front minister warning that “metropolitan Tel Aviv…will be bombed by missiles in the next Gaza war” and adding: “There is no country in the world that is threatened like the State of Israel. The only country that approximates it is South Korea.”

Israel, too, has been building up its capacities and is, of course, far from helpless before these threats. But the rapid demise of what’s left of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty is a story that shouldn’t sink under the radar, uncongenial as it may be to many.

That treaty, signed in 1979, entailed a total Israeli evacuation of armed forces and civilians from Sinai, which was supposed to become a vast buffer zone and guarantor of peace between the two countries. Sinai has, in fact, been a weapons-smuggling route to Gaza since the 1990s, when, as part of another “peace” venture dubbed Oslo, Israel partially transferred security control of the Strip to Yasser Arafat’s forces.

The situation only worsened—dramatically—when Israel totally withdrew from Gaza as well in 2005. Note that, if Israel had remained in Sinai, then relaxing control of the million-plus hostile Arabs in Gaza—something most Israelis wanted in principle—might have been doable without incurring unbearable security costs. But leaving Gaza after Sinai, on which it borders, was totally out of Israel’s hands—as “disengagement” opponents warned at the time—was a recipe for strategic disaster.

At least, toward the end of its existence, the Mubarak regime in Egypt tried to do more to stop the smuggling. Now, with that regime gone, the Islamists ascendant, and Sinai in anarchy, the situation is as described above.
Going back, though, to the 1979 treaty, it was widely touted as showing that Israel could make real, stable peace with its neighbors. Yet, with or without Israel’s blunders, it now emerges clearly that the treaty’s unraveling was a matter of time and a function of intra-Arab dynamics. It will be the same with any other contrived “peace” Israel makes, or is pushed into making, with any other of its neighbors.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel. He blogs at

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