The vast Sinai desert, 23,000 square kilometers of rough mountainous terrain, was once seen as the great guarantor of peace between Israel and Egypt. Even without good will, even if the Egyptians thirsted to attack Israel, there could be no surprise strike. Tanks would have to labor through the desert for days. Planes would have to make tracks across a large swath of demilitarized sky.
Today, after yet another deadly attack carried out from within Sinai, the opposite is true. The friction along the border threatens to erode the foundations of the Israeli-Egyptian peace.
In an article for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in January, Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari argued that skirmishes along the border could spark a military conflict, citing both southern Lebanon and the Jordan Valley as areas where Israeli clashes with terrorists eventually led to battles between the IDF and the standing militaries in Lebanon and Jordan respectively.
Speaking on Channel 2 news on Monday, Yaari, the channel’s Arab affairs analyst, called the Sinai Peninsula “a front” and “a sort of Fatahland” – a reference to the part of southern Lebanon that hosted the PLO and pushed Israel to war in the summer of 1982.
In his article, Yaari, who at this point believes that the Sinai Peninsula is “conceptually and economically annexed to the Gaza Strip,” suggested a redeployment of Egyptian troops in the peninsula, allowing several brigades to move farther east into the mountainous areas in central and northeastern Sinai.
He argued that their presence could at least bar terror squads from launching mega attacks such as the firing of surface-to-air missiles at Israeli planes coming in and out of Eilat and Ovda airports and anti-tank ordinances fired at ships sailing to and from Israel’s Red Sea port.
Such attacks would likely compel Israel to respond in a manner that would threaten the peace treaty.
Yet the introduction of a bolstered Egyptian military presence near Israel’s border is today a worrying prospect in its own right. Egyptian president elect Muhammad Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party, may well follow the example of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and methodically strip the secular military of its political might.
According to Dr. Ely Karmon, an expert on terrorism and guerrilla warfare in modern times at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, there are three groups currently tunneling under the foundations of the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty: The Salafists, whose influence has been on the rise in Sinai since the American invasion of Iraq; the Islamist president elect, who is in ideological lockstep with Hamas; and the Iranian regime.
Each attack on Israel from within Sinai, Karmon said, further erodes the treaty. “Look at what happened last time,” he said, referring to the August 2011 terror attack on Route 12 that claimed eight Israeli and six Egyptian lives. “For all intents and purposes we have had no Israeli Embassy in Egypt since then.”