Facing Uncertainty in Sinai

Until recently, there was no significant government presence or control of public order in the Sinai Peninsula. Anyone associated with “marijuana tourism”, for example, knew that the region was an attractive destination where one could leisurely sit by the Red Sea, purchase marijuana and smoke joints without fear of interference by the local police. They would seldom arrest tourists for drug offences, and on the rare occasion, that they did, it was only really for protocol. The threat level was certainly nothing compared to the level of law enforcement for drug offences in Israel.

However, the Israeli spliff culture is far from being the most critical problem in the Sinai.  The same vacuum of law and order that allows for non-existent narcotics enforcement, also allows, among others, for the trafficking of human beings and smuggling of weapons into Israel via the Sinai border.

According to statistics, as of March 2012, approximately 60,000 illegal African asylum seekers entered Israel through the southern border (and this is only the official count), however, the economic and social problems created by their immigration into Israel have already been expounded upon sufficiently.

Many may think that the Israeli public is the primary victim of the consequences from the disaster on the Israeli-Egyptian border; however the African immigrants who do not succeed in crossing the border and entering into Israel, are routinely experiencing a hell on earth. For several years, international human rights organizations have reported on the existence of torture camps run by groups of armed Bedouins just south of the Israel-Sinai border. These groups systematically abduct African asylum seekers en route to Israel and hold them in appalling conditions, torturing them, demanding ransom for their release (amounts range from $30,000 – $50,000 per person), sexually assaulting them, harvesting their organs and executing them. Many reports have also surfaced about smugglers who traffic kidnapped women into Israel and sell them to local pimps who employ them against their will in the prostitution industry.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Additional published data regarding the conduct of Bedouin smugglers in Sinai is appalling. In 2009 alone, 1272 kilograms of hashish, 3,000 kilograms of marijuana, and 159.5 kilograms of heroin was seized on our southern border, these astronomical amounts of narcotics are the only the amounts that the authorities were able to  seize.

The current Israeli government strategically decided to invest a billion Israeli shekels into building a fence along the southern border. Yet, the truth is that without a stable government on the either side of the border, the fence in itself will prove to be ineffective. The southern border is the longest continuous border of Israel, and our troops are not capable of guarding every kilometer of it constantly.

I am probably a naive optimist, and perhaps I am not seeing the big picture. However, it’s hard for me not to positively view the new order that the current Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, recently imposed in the Sinai. He has taken responsibility and fired senior officers who have failed in maintaining security and order.  Unlike Mubarak, he didn’t turn a blind eye to the activities of terrorist groups operating in Sinai, and he has made it clear who is in charge – a new master of the house who does not tolerate lawbreakers.

Morsi’s motivations are up for interpretation. Is he just trying to allay the fears of the international community who are concerned with the potential aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and the implications of a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Or is it simply a reflection of local political competition by his faction, to show that no other Islamic party will dictate the agenda in Egypt? Indeed, he has a well-trained and equipped military, and he has now proven that he is not ashamed to use it.  Is this a potential warning sign for Israel? A silent message of sorts; warning Israel not to change the current status quo otherwise he’ll turn his army against us?  As always, I presume that there are a number of motivations, and there is not one single, correct interpretation for his actions.

No matter what Morsi’s motives truly are, as long as he continues to use his power to tackle terrorist organizations, and clean up the Sinai by removing unofficial armed militias and smugglers from the region, Israel and the humanitarian community have something to gain from his rise to power. As long as Morsi does not intend to go to war with Israel, then I prefer him as a ruler who is strong and engaged rather than a ruler who is weak and indifferent.  Even if Morsi does not exemplify an olive leaf in the mouth of a dove, I expect that he will reduce the amount of rolled green leaves protruding from the mouths of youth in Israel.

About the Author
Calev Michael Myers is the Deputy President of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ) and the President and Executive Chairman of ARISE - Alliance to Reinforce Israel's Security and Economy (ARISE). He is also a Senior Partner at Yehuda Raveh & Co. Law Offices (YR&Co.). The opinions expressed in Calev's blogs may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the IAJLJ, ARISE or YR&Co.