Israel’s Sinai threat: when less is more

The Sinai Peninsula has, since the overthrow of Mubarack and then Morsi in Egypt, emerged as the next potential Islamist battleground. Yet like most responses to Islamic insurgency post 9/11, Egypt, with the approval of Israel, has responded with military force. Relying solely on military force though is symptomatic of a misunderstanding of the nature of the situation in the Sinai. If Israel is to pursue a set of appropriate responses to secure its southern border, it will need to firstly ensure that it views this threat for what it really is; an emerging insurgency driven by local Bedouin grievances – grievances that are now being exploited by Al Qaeda inspired organisations.

The evolving security landscape in the Sinai undoubtedly indicates that the Sinai has, and is, undergoing a radicalization process. Already organisations such as Majils Shura al-Mujahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, the Mujahadin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, or MSC, have emerged to challenge the Egyptian military and threaten Israel’s southern border. These terrorist groups have not only been responsible for a large number of attacks against security forces, but have also positioned their campaign firmly within the broader Al Qaeda inspired ideology. This narrative, prominently displayed through numerous jihadi websites such as Shamukh al-Islam, Al Qaeda’s official on-line jihadi forum, has sought to place the conflict in Sinai as existing within the broader struggle to liberate Israel and Jerusalem for Muslims and the Palestinians.

Focusing on this rhetoric and the threat these groups pose, the Egyptian army, with the approval of Israel, has responded with sweeping military incursions aimed at securing a strictly counter-terrorist agenda. In 2011 it launched Operation Eagle and followed suite in August 2012 with Operation Sinai. Both operations involved large numbers of military and police personal and both resulted in many arrests.

Relying on military operations though that are purely aimed at countering the threat of jihadi militant groups is indicative of a misunderstanding of the real issues driving conflict in the Sinai. These issues stem from the local grievances of Bedouin tribes, grievances that are now being exploited by jihadist organisations that seek to benefit from the Sinai’s lawlessness and proximity to Israel. A major source of Bedouin resentment and frustration has been issues of land ownership – Bedouin tribes are unable to register ownership of land they view as their own – and their inability to gain work. Members of Bedouin tribes have been excluded from joining the ranks of Egypt’s police and military forces and working in Sinai’s tourism industry. This combined with the perception that Cairo has traditionally disrespected the Bedouin culture has fermented a sense of anger and resentment towards the government.

Despite the key to peace in the Sinai lying with its local Bedouin tribes and its relationship with the Egyptian military and whatever future government finally takes hold in Cairo, Israel is not left without options. In responding to this emerging crises however Israel will have to acknowledge these local grievances underpinning Sinai’s troubles and act accordingly. In the short term this will mean tempering any impulses it has at responding with its military. Such attacks play right into the hands of terrorist organisations by giving credit to their narrative. This is not to argue that all military incursions into the Sinai should be off limits. States, including Israel, have a right to defend themselves should an attack be imminent, and to Israel’s credit, its military responses are generally tempered. Yet as the insurgency grows the temptation to strike will undoubtedly grow. Fighting this temptation will be vital.

In the long run, Israel will need to encourage Egypt and its leaders to address the issues of its Bedouin population, and to encourage this, should no longer allow Egypt to further militarize the Sinai.

While military responses have an allure given their short term gains, they ultimately only serve in adding fuel to the fire. Addressing the local issues of this emerging insurgency will go much further in quelling this rising Islamist tide than will recourse to military operations. With Israel’s national security environment entering a dangerous phase, encouraging Egypt to take the correct path needs to be a priority.

About the Author
Stephen works in the Australian public service. He has degrees from Deakin University, Melbourne, in International Relations and Macquarie University, Sydney, in International Security Studies.