In Sinai, a local tribe fights to push back the Islamic State

The Tarabins, the peninsula’s largest Bedouin group, has taken up arms against the terror group; at the same time, Hamas, hoping to improve relations with Egypt, has apparenty downgraded its ties with IS

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: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)
Illustrative: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)

Despite security warnings, a large number of Israelis made their way to the Sinai Peninsula over Passover, confident that nothing bad would happen to them and feeling secure in the belief that terrorists from the local Islamic State affiliate — the Sinai Province — were confined to the northeastern corner of the peninsula, far from the pristine beaches along the coast of the Red Sea. Heedless of the danger, Israeli tourists poured across the border into Egypt.

At some stage, the IDF decided that the danger posed by the Sinai Province terrorists was too great, leading the army to take the unusual step of shutting the border between the two countries in order to prevent Israelis from entering Sinai. Israel also called on Israelis already in the Sinai to come back home. Unsurprisingly, many Israelis reacted furiously to the move, as they were forced to scrap their vacation plans.

But what those same Israelis did not know was that the decision to close the Taba border crossing was made on the basis of concrete information that IS operatives were gathering intelligence on Israeli targets in the peninsula for a terror attack on the crowds of Israelis at Red Sea resorts and at the Taba crossing.

An attempt by IS to carry out such an attack would have been far from unusual. Islamic terror groups have previously racked up a number of high-profile attacks against targets dense with tourists in the area, among them the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015, the bombing of a bus of Korean tourists headed to Israel at the Taba border crossing in 2014, and hotel bombings in 2004. And for IS, an attack on Israelis would have been even better that one on anyone else.

Until now, the Egyptian military has succeeded in thwarting the infiltration of IS members seeking to operate along the Sinai’s coastal strip. However, the Sinai Province’s intent to carry out an attack over Passover shows that despite the difficulties the group faces in reaching the coast, it clearly does not lack the motivation to do so.

Illustrative photo of an Egyptian member of the armed forces in northern Sinai. (AFP/Mohamed el-Shahed)
Illustrative photo of an Egyptian member of the armed forces in northern Sinai. (AFP/Mohamed el-Shahed)

While the Egyptian army continues to act against the Sinai Province, the main story in the Sinai in recent weeks has been the ongoing fighting between IS and members of the Tarabin tribe. The feud has evolved into a full-on war, with both IS and the Bedouin tribe carrying out executions and other acts of brutality against each other.

The Tarabins are the largest of the Sinai Peninsula’s Bedouin tribes – numbering some 30,000 people – and their decision to wage war against IS is therefore by no means insignificant. The tension between the sides stems from a struggle over territory, with IS having attempted to enforce sharia law on areas controlled by the Tarabins without the tribe’s consent.

Even more important in the eyes of the Tarabin has been the Sinai Province’s undermining of their profitable business smuggling goods to the Gaza Strip. In outlawing the smuggling of tobacco products to Gaza due to the religious prohibition on smoking, IS destroyed an industry worth millions of shekels a month. Not content with forbidding the smuggling of cigarettes, IS also issued a blanket ban on the smuggling of all goods to Gaza due to its growing tensions with the strip’s ruler, Hamas.

Illustrative: Palestinian workers pray inside a smuggling tunnel between Sinai and Rafah, April 3, 2013 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian workers pray inside a smuggling tunnel between Sinai and Rafah, April 3, 2013 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

This blatant attack by IS on the Tarabins’ economic well-being did not pass quietly and signaled the start of the war now raging throughout the Sinai against IS. The fighting between the sides has included kidnappings, burning captives alive, car bombings and the severing of limbs, among other forms of brutality.

Despite the Tarabins’ clear advantage in terms of manpower – with the Sinai Province counting only some 1,000 operatives among its ranks — the tribe is still not close to dealing the decisive blow in the campaign, as IS is a versatile group capable of acting in many guises, including that of a decentralized guerrilla army whose leaders and members are hard to track down.

In addition to this, not all of the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai are rushing to the Tarabins’ side. The Sawarkas continue to be the main source of manpower for the Sinai Province, along with the Ramilat and Barikat tribes.

Some 600,000 to 800,000 Bedouins reside in the Sinai, living in poor economic conditions and subject to neglect and humiliation from the Egyptian government, as evidenced by the fact that they are classified as permanent residents and not citizens, requiring them to receive permission if they want to travel to Cairo. This degrading state of affairs has created a fertile breeding ground for IS and explains the group’s support among segments of the local population.

If there is one thing the Tarabin can take comfort in, it is the fact that the Egyptian army is also struggling to eliminate the perceived threat from IS. The military has largely limited itself to pinpoint raids and aerial bombardments, refusing to embark on an Egyptian version of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield to uproot Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada, in which troops went house to house and cleared every alley.

Cooperation with Hamas

On Sunday, a Hamas delegation led by Yahya Sinwar, Tawfik Abu Naim and others set out from Gaza for a series of meetings with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo, after a long period in which Egyptian authorities refused to allow the terror group’s leaders to leave the Strip through the Rafah Border Crossing. Egypt’s stubborn refusal on the matter stemmed from a number of reasons, among them the ongoing ties between Hamas and IS.

While cooperation between the two sides has declined, and it is no longer the case that every injured Sinai Province operative is taken to Gaza for medical treatment from Hamas-affiliated doctors, Hebrew media reports and information coming out of Egypt have exposed claims by Hamas that it has cut ties with IS as a bluff. Time after time, senior Hamas figures promised that the terror group would take action against IS and time after time the Egyptians have been surprised to learn that in fact Hamas was keeping up its close-knit ties with the Sinai Province.

However, this time something appears to have a changed: a negative development in the relationship between Hamas and IS. In recent months, Hamas has carried out a wave of arrests of operatives from fellow jihadist groups that it views as a potential threat to its rule, including those associated with IS. For its part, IS has responded by further restricting the flow of smuggled goods into Gaza, including of course cigarettes.

To prove to the Egyptians that it is serious about cracking down on IS, Hamas even built a series of military posts on the Philadelphi Corridor along Gaza’s border with Sinai, similar to those the terror group has in place along the borders with Israel.

Hamas members stand next to an Egyptian watch tower on the border between Egypt and Gaza, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, September 21, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas members stand next to an Egyptian watch tower on the border between Egypt and Gaza, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, September 21, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Still – to no one’s surprise – ties between Hamas and IS have continued, even if they are not what they once were. A small coterie of IS operatives from Sinai and Egypt continues to take refuge in the Gaza Strip, while an estimated 15-16 Gazans are currently among the ranks of IS in Sinai, most of whom were former Hamas members.

All of these Gazans are considered to be valuable sources of information for IS in their respective fields, having arrived in Sinai in order to provide expertise and help IS improve its military capabilities and ability to execute attacks. As a result of this, the Sinai Province owes them a great deal for their contributions to the terror group.

Although cooperation between Hamas and IS continues, the nature of the ties has taken on a different form. While in the past the relations between the two groups was managed by their respective commanders, today it has taken on a more violent tone, as the sides seek to influence each other’s activities for their own benefit and improve their relative positions.

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