Israelis on Sinai Border Face Islamist Threat
By: Inna Lazareva for Al-Monitor Israel Pulse Posted on July 23.
KADESH BARNEA, Israel — The ripening cherry tomatoes in Anan Seaon’s greenhouse in Kadesh Barnea, southern Israel, are growing just a stone’s throw away from the border with Egypt. For years, the border was quiet in this part of the country, which enjoys yearlong sunshine and rich and fertile soil — ideal for its core industries of farming and tourism. “We sometimes wave to the Egyptian soldiers from here,” says Yael Katsir, a neighbor from the nearby kibbutz Kmehin. But following the uprisings in Egypt in 2011, Anan and other residents have had to set up a security team to deal with the new threats from the neighboring Sinai Peninsula. Since the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, the locals are once again on high alert.
The lawless North Sinai region has increasingly become a base for hard-line Islamists who in the last two years have stepped up their attacks, exploiting a vacuum following the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Since the toppling of Morsi, militants have targeted checkpoints and other security installations on an almost daily basis. The growing instability in Sinai began spilling over into southern Israel more than two years ago, but today, the terror incidents are growing in frequency and sophistication.
Today, Anan receives “more than 20 alerts a day” concerning potentially risky activity on the Israel-Sinai border. Two weeks ago, two Grad rockets fired from the Sinai exploded about 15 km (9 miles) from the Israeli Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Previously, two Grad rockets struck Eilat in April, one of which landed in a residential area.
In August 2011, events on a previously rather quiet border sent shock waves through Israel. Militants infiltrated the country from the Sinai, peppering a bus full of Israeli tourists with bullets. On the same day, one soldier was killed when a large roadside bomb detonated next to an IDF patrol, and a small community north of Eilat was targeted with machine gun fire.
A year later, another group of Islamist extremists from the Sinai killed 15 Egyptian security personnel, before using a pickup truck filled with explosives to burst through the Egypt-Israel border. The militants, heavily armed and wearing suicide belts, managed to penetrate a mile inside Israeli territory before being stopped by the Israeli Defense Forces.
In Egypt, the situation has deteriorated with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and its subsequent demise. This week, militants in the Sinai conducted at least 10 attacks in the peninsula’s main northern cities of Rafah and El Arish against police, security and army checkpoints, killing six Egyptians. In early July, a number of Egyptian Coptic Christians were also killed in the area, including a man who was kidnapped and decapitated five days later, and a priest, who was shot dead in broad daylight.
As a defensive measure, the IDF has deployed an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery to be positioned near the southern town of Eilat. Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has also granted authorization for further deployment of Egyptian troops in the Sinai in order to “fight terror” in the increasingly lawless peninsula. Despite the fact that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt signed in 1979 designates Sinai as a demilitarized zone, since 2011, Israel has been approving requests for Egyptian troops to be deployed in the peninsula in order to prevent escalations.
“The Sinai is becoming increasingly dangerous,” notes Aviv Oreg, former head of the IDF’s military intelligence desk dealing with al-Qaeda and global jihad. He describes the central and northern part of the Sinai — mountainous terrain full of canyons and caves and accessible only on foot — as “the ‘Tora Bora’ of Sinai Peninsula” and “very hard to control.”
The perpetrators are local Bedouins alongside Islamist elements from Gaza and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants. The former have long-held deep resentment as a marginalized community in Egypt. The Bedouins complain that they are not allowed to legally register their land and that checkpoints prevent them from working in the area’s previously formidable tourist hot spots, oil installations and other industry infrastructure, as well as in the army and the police force. Due to lack of development and investment in the area, the most important source of income by far for the locals is smuggling, says Oreg — “anything from prostitutes to job seekers, consumer goods and arms.” Those fleeing neighboring African countries have often ended up being held for ransom in the Sinai. According to a recent Amnesty International report, kidnapped asylum seekers can be held for sums amounting to as much as $30,000 to $40,000.
“An Islamic awakening” is taking place “all over the northern part of Sinai,” attracting more and more al-Qaeda jihadist elements and Palestinian militants, notes Oreg. “There are also new mosques established and many new madrassas. You can see it in the way people dress, in a more traditional Islamic outfits.”
A sophisticated attack by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants is “a doomsday scenario” according to Amos Harel, military correspondent and defense analyst for Israel’s Haaretz daily. And in the past two years, notes Harel, the threat has escalated significantly. “The operations are now something along the lines of Hezbollah” — a more sophisticated approach, which could lead to a hijacking of a large number of women and children, potentially presenting “a huge problem for the Israeli government.”
Reports emerged in recent weeks that the IDF has been training for exactly such a scenario, with a training drill which focused on the borders where Islamist jihadists would attempt to infiltrate Israeli towns to kill and kidnap hostages and civilians. According to Harel, the scenario used by the IDF was “along the lines of the Beslan school siege,” a hostage crisis in September 2004 by a group of armed Islamic separatist militants in North Ossetia in Russia.
For the moment, those in southern Israel are remaining calm, but there are potential economic repercussions. “I know that people who deal with tourism get phone calls — to check what is going on, and some are thinking of canceling their holidays. Tourism is one of the biggest resources of the area and all this can hurt it very badly,” explains Yael.
“We have to rely on local security,” explains Anan. The police and the army can take some time to get to the area, “whereas an incident can be over in five minutes.” These days, some of the local residents carry arms in case of a surprise attack.
“We received an SMS (message) last week when we were at a birthday party telling us there are problems in the area,” says Katsir. “No one got scared, no one was in a panic, we knew we had to take the children and get to our house before the area is closed. … We have to be alert and that’s what it means, basically living on the border.”