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Although it will be known forever as the backdrop of tribal wanderings, wars, and revelations thousands of years in the past, today Sinai is the scene of dramatic events laden with regional significance. This once sleepy land bridge connecting North Africa to the Middle East is now buzzing with activity that demands the attention of Israel, Egypt and all international actors interested in preserving the peace agreement between them. Terrorism and the smuggling of guns, drugs, white slaves, refugees and job seekers across the 61,000-square kilometer (23,500-square mile) patch of sand and mountains are straining resources on both sides of the border.
This is in stark contrast, however, to Sinai’s history. The peninsula has served as a major thoroughfare for traders and conquerors since ancient times, but it has rarely seen significant settlement, and in many ways it has stood on the sidelines of history. It was controlled by the various rulers of Egypt for centuries, until the Ottoman Empire took it over. In place of the Ottomans came the British, who held Egypt as a colony for 70 years, until revolution ended British rule in 1952. The British-delineated border, from Rafah in the Gaza Strip to present-day Eilat, is still recognized today.
In modern relations between Israel and Egypt, Sinai has been both a buffer zone and an area of contention. It was the path through which Egypt attacked Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and via which Israel attacked Egypt, in a joint operation with Britain and France to restore international access to the Suez Canal, in 1956. Throughout, though, it remained remote, sparsely populated, and relatively undeveloped.