The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.
This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.
But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”
There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:
Guns to Gaza
The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.
Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.
Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery
Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.
Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.
On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.
Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.
Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.
Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.