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Security Threats from the Sinai Peninsula

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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 …

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.

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  • 1. 1 The Israel Project Jerusalem Office Tel: 972 2 623-6427 Fax: 972 2 623-6439 www.theisraelproject.org Twitter: @israelproject Facebook: www.facebook.com/theisraelproject YouTube: www.youtube.com/tipinfo Security Threats from the Sinai Peninsula
  • 2. 2 TABLE OF CONTENTS About TIP 3 Introduction 4 Terrorism 5 Smuggling: Weapons, Drugs, and Human Trafficking 6 The Role of Bedouin Tribes 7 Countermeasures and Responses 7 Above: Egypt as viewed from the Israeli side of the new border fence Cover: Courtesy of NASA Updated 20120807
  • 3. 3 ABOUT TIP The Israel Project (TIP) is a non-profit educational organization that gets facts about Israel and the Middle East to press, public officials and the public. The Israel Project is not affiliated with any government. Our team of trusted Middle East multi-lingual experts and former reporters provides journalists and leaders with fact sheets, backgrounders and sources. TIP regularly hosts press briefings featuring leading Israeli spokespeople and analysts that give journalists an opportunity to get information and answers to their questions face-to-face. By providing journalists with the facts, context and visuals they need, TIP enables hundreds of millions of people around the world to see a more positive public face of Israel. This helps protect Israel, reduce anti-Semitism and increase pride in Israel. The Jerusalem Office The Israel Project's (TIP) Jerusalem Office is a non-governmental resource working with foreign journalists and leaders based in Israel. It provides reporters and members of the diplomatic community with needed facts and information before they file their stories/reports. TIP's Jerusalem team features several Middle East experts and former journalists. TIP's Israel team, led by Marcus Sheff, includes experts who are fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, German, Farsi and Russian. Contacts Marcus Sheff Executive Director Tel: 972 2-623-6427 Cell: 972 54-807-9177 E-mail: marcuss@theisraelproject.org David Harris Director of Research and Content Tel: 972 2-623-6427 Cell: 972 54-807-9498 E-mail: davidh@theisraelproject.org Eli Ovits Director of Communications Tel: 972 2 623-6427 Cell: 972 54-807-9093 E-mail: elio@theisraelproject.org Shimrit Meir-Gilboa Director of Arabic Media Program Tel: 972 2-623-6427 Cell: 972 54-801-5982 E-mail: shimritm@theistraelproject.org Sharon Segel Communications Associate – Media Cell: 972 54-807-9078 E-mail: sharons@theisraelproject.org Ronit Shebson Senior Communications Associate – Leaders Cell: 972 54-807-9065 E-mail: ronits@theisraelproject.org Shai Oseran Media Tours Coordinator Cell: 972 54-803-3471 E-mail: shaio@theisraelproject.org Arik Agassi Communications Specialist – Tours & Events Cell: 972 551 7376 E-mail: arika@theisraelproject.org Dor Kaidar Communications Associate – Media Cell: 972 54-7004812 E-mail: Dorka@theisraelproject.org Paul Shindman Research and Content Associate Cell: 972 52-807-9187 E-mail: Pauls@theisraelproject.org
  • 4. 4 Introduction 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. Following decades of fighting across the sands of Sinai, Egypt and Israel made peace in 1979 by establishing tight limits on military activities on the peninsula. In addition to uprooting 170 military installations, including several early-warning and other strategic defense installations, as well as abandoning the Alma oil fields and some 7,000 residents who had settled in Sinai after the 1967 war 1 , Israel agreed to a limited number of infantrymen and weapons along its side of the border with Sinai. Egypt, in turn, committed to a similarly limited deployment of personnel and weaponry in the peninsula, with fewer men and lighter weapons in areas closer to the border with Israel. 2 This arrangement, monitored by an international observer force, helped keep the Sinai border between Egypt and Israel exceptionally quiet and peaceful for nearly 30 years. But it also contributed to the current state of affairs in which terrorists, drug smugglers, white slavers and border infiltrators act with near impunity. 1 Bard, Mitchell, Myths and Facts Online, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/myths3/MFpeace.html#22 2 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, March 26, 1979, http://www.mideastweb.org/egyptisraeltreaty.htm (Map: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
  • 5. 5 Terrorism Terrorism in Egypt predates the establishment of the modern republic, with numerous Islamist groups challenging the influence of Western culture over the state’s laws and society. In facing this threat, the Egyptian government has waged a long and often ugly battle against groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. Those groups were most active in the 1970s through the 1990s, and mainly in Egypt’s largest cities. A new pattern emerged in the 2000s, with groups carrying out attacks against domestic targets in Sinai, and launching attacks against Israel from the area along the border with the Jewish state. A spate of bombings in the mid-2000s that targeted tourist sites along the Sinai’s eastern shore reflected this dramatic change. Nearly three dozen people were killed and scores more were wounded in a devastating attack on the Hilton hotel in Taba in October of 2004 3 , as a truck laden with explosives was driven into the lobby and detonated. The explosion was so powerful that it destroyed 10 floors of the hotel. At the same time, two more bombs were detonated at separate vacation spots along the beach, some 30 miles to the south of Taba, killing two vacationing Israelis and a local Bedouin and wounding dozens more. Egyptian police concluded that the attack had been carried out by Palestinians, working with local Bedouin, who had meant to strike targets inside Israel but where unable to do so 4 . The deadliest attack in Egypt’s history took place in July of 2005, at the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip of the peninsula. A series of bombs exploded at popular spots throughout the town killing 88 people, mostly Egyptians, but also foreign tourists 5 . Another multiple-explosion attack rocked the coastal vacation resort Dahab in April of 2006. Some two dozen people were killed when bombs exploded at several restaurants, cafes and markets. Bedouin residents of the northern Sinai were blamed for the attack 6 . In August of 2011, Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip entered northern Sinai and carried out a cross-border raid north of Eilat, killing eight Israelis 7 . In the first half of 2012 there have been many incidents between armed Jihadist groups who identify with Al-Qaeida, and the Egyptian army, 8 and numerous attempts by armed infiltrators to penetrate the border, including the June 18, 2012 attack that killed an Israeli construction worker. That attack was claimed by “Magles Shoura al-Mujhaddin,” a Salafi faction in Gaza. 9 Global Jihad is label for the network of terrorist groups that share Al-Qaeda’s ideology. It was established in 1998 under the name “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.” 10 Al-Qaeda is the dominant factor in the global Jihad’s umbrella organization. 3 Erlanger, Steven, Blasts Hit 3 Egyptian Resorts Popular With Israelis, The New York Times, October 8, 2004, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04E3DC153BF93BA35753C1A9629C8B63&pagewanted=1 4 Associated Press, ‘Sinai attackers failed to enter Israel’, Yediot Aharonot, April 2, 2005, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3066976,00.html 5 Toll climbs in Egyptian attacks, BBC News, July 23, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4709491.stm 6 Nahmias Roee, Dahab bombers were Sinai Bedouins, Yediot Aharonot, April 26, 06, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L- 3244022,00.html 7 Kershner, Isabel & Kirkpatrick, David, Attacks Near Israeli Resort Heighten Tensions With Egypt and Gaza, The New York Times, August 18, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/19/world/middleeast/19israel.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1329998411- qxWyEkFJbQp0hww4rvRrwQ 8 http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/sinai-attack-proves-islamist-terrorists-are-targeting- egyptians-as-well-as-israelis-1.456174 9 http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-palestinians-israel-violencebre87406b- 20120805,0,7245595.story 10 http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/The_Global_Jihad_/_Al-Qaeda
  • 6. 6 The most recent incident was the August 5, 2012 attack in which terrorists killed 16 Egyptian border guards and used two heavily armed stolen military vehicles to crash through the border into Israel where they were stopped and killed by Israeli forces before reaching nearby towns. Smuggling: Weapons, Drugs, and Human Trafficking Adding to the “wild east” flavor of Sinai is a booming business of smuggling weapons, drugs, prostitutes and migrants across the desert border. Weapons smuggling – primarily to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – was, for a long time, limited to small arms such as Kalashnikov assault rifles. Now, however, following the political upheaval in both Egypt and neighboring Libya, the market has diversified. Not only have ammunition, explosives, and automatic weapons flowed eastward across the peninsula since late 2011, but even more strategic weapons such as heat-seeking, shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles 11 . Drug smuggling has gone on for more than half a century 12 , with marijuana, hashish, heroin and opium making their way across the border 13 . White slavery is another criminal pastime, in which teenage girls and young women, primarily from eastern Europe, are promised work in Israel as nannies or cleaners but are instead forced into prostitution. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been smuggled across the border over the past 20 years 14 . Another major concern for Israel has been the significant increase in recent years of African migrants crossing the border in search of work. At first, a trickle of Sudanese refugees, among thousands who first sought a home in Egypt, fled to Israel. The story of their successful entry into the Jewish state then motivated masses of Eritreans and other Africans to attempt the same path across Sinai. The pace has become dizzying: After just over 1,000 had entered Israel in 2006, another 25,000 came over the next four years 15 . In January of 2012 alone, more than 2,200 entered the country. 16 The wave of migrants not only threatens to overrun Israel’s prisons (where illegal immigrants are housed while their asylum cases are reviewed – Israel is currently constructing a purpose-built center) and welfare services, but it invites criminal gangs in Sinai to exploit the migrants themselves. Guides charge thousands of dollars to lead groups of migrants across the difficult terrain, but they are 11 Fadel, Leila, Smuggled Libyan weapons flood into Egypt, The Washington Post, October 13, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/smuggled-libyan-weapons-flood-into-egypt/2011/10/12/gIQA2YQufL_story.html 12 Marx, Emanuel, Hashish Smuggling by Bedouin in South Sinai, Organized Crime: Culture, Markets and Policies, Studies in Organized Crime Volume 7, 2008, pp 29-37http://rd.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-0-387-74733-0_3# 13 Illicit drugs, CIA, The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2086.html 14 Fast Facts about Prostitution in Israel, Atzum, http://atzum.org/projects/task-force-on-human-trafficking/project-119/fast-facts- about-prostitution-in-israel/ 15 Natan Gilad, Knesset, Crime Statistics of Illegal Immigrants, October 11, 2010, http://www.knesset.gov.il/mmm/data/pdf/m02625.pdf 16 Lappin, Yaakov, 2,295 illegal African migrants enter Israel in January, The Jerusalem Post, January 2, 2012, http://www.jpost.com/Headlines/Article.aspx?id=256005 Chidren of migrant workers attending Rogozin Bialik school in Tel Aviv (David Katz/The Israel Project) Minimal or no fencing made smuggling easier in the past. (Yonatan Ilan)
  • 7. 7 often overrun by – or complicit with – gangs who torture, kidnap, and extort the migrants 17 for tens of thousands of dollars more, in ransom payments 18 . These gangs have even engaged in organ trafficking, forcibly removing the organs of victims who refuse to give in to their demands 19 . Rival tribes have fought each other for control of the lucrative industry 20 . The Role of Bedouin Tribes The Bedouin tribesmen who make up some 70 percent of the Sinai population play a central role in all these cases. The reasons for their criminality are plenty. As cultural, ethnic and geographic outsiders, the Bedouin have been neglected by Cairo for decades, and so see their lawlessness as a form of revenge. Also marginalized economically, with little beyond farming and tourism to sustain them, crime becomes a lucrative alternative 21 . Islamist forces are making inroads as a response to the violence of government security forces, although this influence is tempered by various cultural nuances and economic factors that make a large-scale turn to Islamism unlikely 22 . Egypt has struggled to impose law and order in the border region, despite reinforcing its security presence there (and often rounding up thousands of Bedouin at a time, as it did after the resort town bombings of the mid-2000s). Cairo’s inability to effectively control Sinai has allowed Gazan terrorist groups to set up new infrastructure in northern Sinai 23 , and it has allowed the country’s vital natural gas pipeline to Israel to be damaged by saboteurs – on no fewer than 10 occasions in 2011 alone 24 . Even though the supply contract was cancelled in April, 2012, terrorists again blew it up on July 22, 2012. Countermeasures and Responses Aside from the motivations of local Bedouin to take part in the attacks, smuggling and infiltrations, the difficult terrain along the border area is a significant factor in making them possible. Sandy expanses, rocky ravines, and mountains make tracking and patrolling the border a tricky task. Even more significant, is the lack of a formidable physical barrier to separate Egypt and Israel, as well as the minimal number of military and law-enforcement personnel on both sides of the border that was mandated by the Camp David peace accords. Until recently, the fence was, for long stretches of the border, only a momentary impediment on the way from Sinai into Israel’s Negev desert. Short, 17 Greenwood, Phoebe, Egyptian authorities look the other way as Bedouin kidnap refugees, The Guardian, February 15, 2012 http://www.phr.org.il/default.asp?PageID=184&ItemID=1244 18 Makar, Amir, Eritrean dissident in Cairo slams human trafficking through Sinai, The Daily News Egypt, November 3, 2011, http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/human-a-civil-rights/eritrean-dissident-in-cairo-slams-human-tIrafficking-through-sinai-dp1.html 19 Pleitgen, Fred & Fadel Fahmy, Mohamed, Refugees face organ theft in the Sinai, CNN, November 3, 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/11/03/world/meast/pleitgen-sinai-organ-smugglers/index.html 20 Khaled, Osama & ElBoluk, Salah, Human organ trafficking war waged between Sinai Bedouins, Egypt Independent, November 14, 2011, http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/514726 21 Amr Yossef, Securing the Sinai, Foreign Affairs, September 28, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68304/amr- yossef/securing-the-sinai Al-Desoukie, Omnia, North Sinai voters wary of Islamist dominance, The Daily News Egypt, January 4, 2012, http://thedailynewsegypt.com/egypt-elections-2011/north-sinai-voters-wary-of-islamist-dominance.html 23 Yaari, Ehud, Sinai: A New Front, Policy Notes, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 2012, http://washingtoninstitute.org/pubPDFs/PolicyNote09.pdf 24 Ya’ar, Chana, Sinai Terrorists Bomb Gas Pipeline a 10th Time, December 18, 2011 http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/150817#.T0lOQPEgef8 Typical Sinai terrain. (Mark A. Wilson)
  • 8. 8 flimsy, and often bent or in a state of disrepair, the chain-link and barbed wire barrier was not up to the task of preventing infiltrations. Israeli military patrols are carried out regularly, with veteran trackers – many of them Bedouin Israeli-Arabs – searching the fence area for signs of infiltration, but the poor state of the border road and other factors made chasing smugglers and other border crossers a difficult proposition. Egyptian security personnel, meanwhile, maintain a more passive stance – keeping their distance from the border fence, in part, to prevent possible confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Israel has been spurred to action by the combined threats of the terrorist attacks of the mid-2000s – and especially the prospect of Palestinian terror groups using the relatively lawless northern Sinai as a nearly-untouchable base of operations, following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza – and the advancing pace of African job seekers flowing across the border. Major upgrades to the border fence and its accompanying infrastructure are under way: a taller, more robust fence, electronic surveillance systems, armored personnel carriers for security patrols and more are being installed, with plans for completing the project by the end of 2012 25 . Egypt has also responded to the increased threats, sending more troops and heavier weapons into the northern Sinai; this was made possible by and Egyptian-Israeli agreement to temporarily amend the security provisions of the Camp David accords 26 . Reinforcements, however, have been greeted by violent clashes with local Bedouin, with troops facing rocket-propelled grenade attacks 27 and effectively being barred from local strongholds so impenetrable that they are known as “the Tora Bora of the Sinai” 28 . In short, the situation along the border continues to be tense, with both sides working to restore the calm that once prevailed in the vast Sinai Peninsula. Quieting the region is no simple job, however, as numerous elements demand attention of authorities in Egypt, Israel, and other foreign powers. 25 Zitun, Yoav, IDF presents new southern border defense vision, Yediot Aharonot, February 6, 2012, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4186202,00.html 26 El-Boluk, Salah, Army tanks in N. Sinai for first time since Israeli peace treaty, Egypt Independent, August 14, 2011, http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/486279 27 Bradley, Matt, & Mitnick, Joshua, The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704570104576124363132383924.html 28 Yaari, Ehud, Sinai: A New Front, Policy Notes, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 2012, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/pubPDFs/PolicyNote09.pdf An Israeli soldier deals with an explosive device planted on the border between Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. (IDF)
  • 9. 9 Timeline of terrorist incidents in Egypt or the Egypt-Israel border from the past decade: August 5, 2012 – Terrorists affiliated with “Global Jihad” kill 15 Egyptian security officers and steal two vehicles, using one to blow their way through the border. Israeli forces destroy the second vehicle inside Israel and kill the attackers. Egyptian sources say attackers had help from Jihadists in Gaza. August 4, 2012 – Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper report quotes governor of south Sinai, Maj. Gen. Khalid Fouda saying Israeli warnings of pending attack are rumors and there are no terrorist cells in the Sinai.29 August 3, 2012 – U.S. State Department issues warning to American citizens to avoid travel in the Sinai due to kidnapping threat, saying “the danger of overland travel in the Sinai is significant.” August 2, 2012 – Israeli government issues travel warning telling all Israelis to leave the Sinai, saying “terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip and additional elements are actively planning to perpetrate terrorist attacks, especially abductions, against Israeli tourists in Sinai in the immediate term.” July 25, 2012 – Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniya meets in Cairo with Egyptian President Morsi, who promised to ease Egypt-Gaza border crossings where Israel knows illegal weapons are smuggled to Gaza. June 18, 2012 – Terrorist cell attacks Israeli construction crew on Sinai border, killing one civilian. Responsibility for attack claimed by the radical jihadist militant group “Magles Shoura al-Mujhaddin.” June 15, 2012 – Two Grad rockets explode in southern Israel near Ovda and Ramon Crater, no damage. April 5, 2012 – Three rockets fired from Sinai explode in Eilat, no damage. April 1, 2012 – IDF troops kill armed infiltrator at border fence. Three IEDs on border fence diffused in the week before the attack. March 15, 2012 – Armed Bedouin end their week-long siege of the international peacekeeping force’s North Camp at al-Jora in the Sinai. They were pressing for the release of arrested fellow tribesmen. March 15, 2012 – IDF troops intercept armed infiltrators on border. Three captured after shots fired from Egypt. February 28, 2012 – IDF troops exchange fire with armed infiltrators on Sinai-Israel border. One attacker killed in area where a week earlier another IED was diffused on border fence. August 18, 2011 –Terrorists cross border and attack bus, car and soldiers. Eight killed, 40 wounded. 2011-2012 – After 13 separate attacks that repeatedly blow up sections of the Egyptian natural gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan, Egypt unilaterally cancels the 20-year supply contract. August, 2010 – Seven rockets fired from Sinai at Eilat. Two explode in Aqaba, Jordan killing one person. June, 2010 – IDF intercepts three armed infiltrators 40 km north of Eilat. One killed and two set IED and escape. April, 2010 – Rockets fired from Sinai fired at Eilat, but cause no damage or injuries. May, 2009 – Egyptian security forces uncover massive arms cache along Israeli border including at least 266 rockets, 40 landmines, 50 mortar shells, 20 hand grenades and at least three anti-aircraft missiles. 29 http://www.ahram.org.eg/980/2012/08/04/60/163841/219.aspx
  • 10. 10 April, 2007 – Egyptians intercept terrorist attack against Israeli tourists in Sinai just south of Gaza. January, 2007 –Suicide bomber blows himself up in Eilat bakery, killing three Israeli civilians. April, 2006 – Bomb attacks on the Egyptian resort city of Dahab kills at least 23 and wounds 80. July, 2005 – Series of bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh kills 88 people and wounds over 150. October, 2004 – Terrorists bomb tourist hotels in Sinai Peninsula killing 34 people and injuring 171. January, 2003 – Terrorists infiltrate border near town of Nitzana and kill Israeli soldier.