Egypt is winning battle against Islamic State in Sinai — but only temporarily
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Analysis

Egypt is winning battle against Islamic State in Sinai — but only temporarily

Local branch of terror group suffers major losses after sweeping campaign, but Peninsula’s beaches remain dangerous — and situation could explode when army reduces its presence

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: A picture taken on November 28, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Illustrative: A picture taken on November 28, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Generations of Israeli combat troops who served in the southern Gaza Strip between the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula almost 40 years ago and the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 remember the homes of Egyptian Rafah, just over the border, on the other side of the Philadelphi Corridor. It was a city with thousands of houses and tens of thousands of residents — Bedouins, Egyptians, and Palestinians — many of whom were related to the families who lived in the nearby Palestinian Rafah inside the Strip.

But Egyptian Rafah is no more. The large city, which was considered the urban center of northeastern Sinai, has been wiped off the face of the earth as part of the Egyptian army’s campaign to remove inhabitants and homes from the Gaza Strip border area in order to prevent the smuggling of goods.

The initiative wasn’t new. The Egyptian government announced it as far back as four years ago. Now, it has succeeded in establishing a perimeter — an area free of homes and residents — consisting of a three-and-a-half-kilometer-wide strip along the entire border between Egypt and Hamas-run Gaza.

The Egyptians forcibly transferred tens of thousands of people — unhindered by any court or rights group, and largely unreported on — as part of their war against the Islamic State terror group’s branch in Sinai, known as Wilayat Sinai or the Sinai Province, and against smuggling to and from Gaza.

The story of Egyptian Rafah is only one example of the numerous actions taken by the Egyptian government throughout Sinai — which surprisingly, and perhaps only temporarily, have managed to stabilize the security situation there after years of war and bloodshed. Casualties among Egyptian troops and civilians have decreased drastically, as has the number of security-related incidents in Sinai per week.

Less than a year ago, in November 2017, Islamic State set a new record of horror in its terror attacks in Sinai. Dozens of members of the Sinai Province stormed the Al-Rawda mosque of the Jaririya Sufi order in the town of Bir al-Abed, west of El-Arish, when it was filled with worshipers. More than 300 people were slaughtered in the worst attack in Egypt’s history.

Discarded shoes of victims remain outside Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt. a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshipers, on November 25, 2017. (AP Photo)

After years of indecisive military policy, that horrific incident prompted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his army’s senior commanders to go on the offensive, particularly in Sinai. The army, having acquired significant reinforcements with Israel’s consent, launched its campaign, branded “Comprehensive Operation — Sinai 2018,” entered many villages and towns where Sinai Province had a strong presence, and cleansed them of Islamic State fighters.

But these successes cannot be attributed solely to the Egyptian army’s actions. While the army enjoys more personnel, advanced intelligence-gathering technologies, and close security cooperation with Israel, the new state of affairs also has something to do with the Sinai Province.

First, aid from outside has stopped for the simple reason that Islamic State, as a de-facto state with Raqqa as its capital, has been destroyed. The “headquarters” in Syria that provided assistance when required no longer exists.

Islamic State has gone underground, with a sparse presence in Syria, and has real difficulty helping branches such as the Sinai Province.

Illustrative: This photo posted on a file sharing website Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, by the Islamic State Group in Sinai, shows a deadly attack by militants on an Egyptian police checkpoint, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in el-Arish, north Sinai, Egypt. Arabic reads, “Clash with light arms with the remaining apostates left alive at the fire station checkpoint.” Egypt’s military says it has begun a major security operation in areas including the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic militants are most active. (Islamic State Group in Sinai, via AP, File)

On top of that, an influx of foreign activists, mainly from countries of the former Soviet Union, has led to changes in relations with the local population. Sinai Province had always relied on Bedouin activists from the local tribes, such as the Sawarka and the Barikat. But the strengthening of foreign elements in Sinai Province led to particularly cruel acts against the local population, including even against the members of the tribes that were loyal to the group.

For instance, Islamic State fighters hunted down and punished smugglers and merchants who brought cigarettes to the Gaza Strip through the tunnels. This caused a great deal of tension and even violent acts on both sides, particularly among the Bedouin, who saw a threat to an industry that provided them with a livelihood. For this reason, many of Sinai’s inhabitants turned against Islamic State and provided the Egyptian army’s intelligence efforts with much assistance.

Additionally, immense Egyptian pressure on Hamas has led the Palestinian terror group to change its relationship with the Sinai Province. Hamas suddenly distanced itself from members of the Sinai Province who had previously been welcome guests in the Gaza Strip. Hamas even provided the Egyptians with information about its own members who had crossed the border into Sinai in order to join Sinai Province — an act that also weakened Islamic State in Sinai.

Does this mean that the beaches of Sinai are safe for tourists again? The assessment would be no, even though 15,000 Israeli Jews spent the last Passover holiday on the shores of the Red Sea in the Peninsula. Hundreds of Islamic State members were killed in recent months, leaving the group with a total of approximately 1,000 fighters. But Sinai Province and its members are maintaining their efforts to harm the Egyptian economy by harming its tourism industry, and are still successfully recruiting new volunteers.

In addition, no long-term solution to Egypt’s governance problem in Sinai has yet been found. At some point after the Egyptian army leaves Sinai or reduces its presence there, the devastation it caused in many towns and villages could strengthen, rather than weaken, the Islamist elements in Sinai.

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