With much of the world’s attention focused on the expanding war in Syria and increasing tensions with Iran it is easy to ignore the serious potential for major problems in an area largely overlooked for the last 30 years – the Sinai Peninsula. The scene of at least four major conflicts between Israel and Egypt from 1948 to 1973 this 61,000 km2 triangle of desert, jagged mountains, glittering tourist resorts and deep biblical significance has once again become a flash point in a region that does not need any more flash points.
|The Sinai Peninsula|
In a paper published last month by Chatham House (The Royal Institute ofInternational Affairs) Nicolas Pelham, The Economist’s correspondent in Jerusalem, notes that the Sinai used to serve as a buffer ‘cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians.’ Now, however, he cautions that that buffer has eroded as new players have asserted themselves in the vacuum created by the collapse of the old Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak.
For more than 30 years the Sinai was more or less ruled according to the so-called Camp David Accords signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in September 1978. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai that it had conquered in 1967, evacuate 4,500 civilians, guarantee freedom of passage between Egypt and Jordan, and return the oil fields in the western Sinai. Egypt agreed to limit its forces in the Sinai, and guarantee freedom of passage for Israeli ships through Suez Canal and the straits of Tiran. The two antagonists opened formal diplomatic relations in 1980.
As Pelham notes, however, “the old accords underpinning regional stability have failed to keep pace with the changing times.” These accords were created when Egyptian and Israeli security forces ruled supreme. Now the emergence of the Hamas government in Gaza, newly assertive indigenous Bedouin tribes, jihadis, and other ‘non-state’ players in the region coupled with the weakened central control of the Egyptian government in Cairo has created a volatile situation filled with conflicting interests just waiting for the right fuse.
These simmering tensions have resulted in repeated attacks on the gas pipeline from Egypt to Jordan and Israel. More serious was the attack in August 2012 on an Egyptian military base in which 16 soldiers were killed. On top of these incidents have been the cross-border raids where militants killed several Israelis. There was also a missile attack on Eilat on the eve of the 2012 Passover holiday. Israel has responded in predictable fashion by moving additional troops into the area and building a high wall along the 240 kilometre border with the Sinai. Tourism in the area was hit by attacks on the Gold Coast of Sharm al-Sheikh. Egypt’s response to the August 2012 attack was to move against the vast tunnel system used to transport goods and weapons into Gaza from Sinai.
|The key tourist town of Sharm al-Sheikh|
Local Bedouin tribes in the area have long been frustrated by wide-spread discrimination against them by the Egyptian authorities in everything from employment to land titles. Pelham notes that the rampant development of the ‘Red Sea Riviera’ in the 1990s and 2000s that was protected by a military cordon created a great deal of resentment as local Bedouin were pushed away from the southern coast. Since the fall of Mubarak these tribes have seized the opportunity to create new facts on the ground.
Relations between the Hamas government of Gaza and the Mubarak regime had been marked by mutual suspicion. Egyptian suspicion of Hamas’ anti-regime activities led to frequent closure of the Gaza-Sinai border and arrest of Hamas members accused of helping the militant bombings of the southern Sinai tourist resorts. With the election of the allied Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt Hamas has attempted to show that it can be a force for regional stability rather than a home for militant Islamist attacks on Egypt as well as Israel. Hamas has pledged not to use Egyptian territory for back-door attacks on Israel and has curtailed the operational freedom it had given to some Islamist groups for actions against Israel.
|Part of the elaborate tunnel system between Sinai and Gaza|
Many in the United States Congress want to know if the new Egyptian government will continue to honor the Camp David Accords. A much better question is how to bring these accords in line with realities that did not exist in 1978. The time has come for some fresh thinking on how to bring stability to this region before it erupts even more. A good place to start would be Pelham’s suggestions of formally including Hamas in discussions of regional stability, fully integrating the Bedouin into formal structures of Egyptian rule in the Sinai, and formalize the access and trade relations between Gaza, the Sinai and Israel. Bringing these disparate groups inside the tent may be unwieldy and distasteful to many. But maintaining the fiction that they exist only at the margins will only lead to more unrest for all concerned.