Thursday, August 9, 2012

Israel’s Sinai Dilemmas

Israel’s Sinai Dilemmas

By P. David Hornik

On Sunday night, terrorists at the Egyptian-Israeli border stormed a checkpoint and massacred 16 Egyptian border guards there. They then drove two vehicles toward Israel with the aim of perpetrating a mass-casualty attack against Israeli civilians—thwarted by the combined efforts of the Israeli ground forces and air force.

Yet, according to official statements of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and of Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, the attack was carried out by—Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denounced such claims as “nonsense” and added: “Even the person who says this when he looks at himself in the mirror does not believe the nonsense he is uttering.”

There’s evidence that Palmor is right. Immediately after the attack, Hamas sealed off tunnels from Gaza into Sinai—since it’s suspected that small, non-Hamas, Gaza-based terror groups took part in the attack. Hamas, of course, does not really think Israeli operatives somehow got into Gaza, reached Sinai through the tunnels, and massacred Egyptian policemen before trying to ram one or two suicide vehicles full-speed into Israeli border villages.

And as for Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, on Tuesday he visited the site of the attack and said that “those who committed this criminal act of terror are enemies of the Egyptian nation and they will pay dearly…. There is no room for appeasing this treason, this aggression and criminality”—without making any mention of Israel.

Early Wednesday morning Egyptian attack helicopters reportedly fired missiles at suspected Islamic terrorists who had attacked three more checkpoints in northern Sinai, 30 miles from the Gaza-Israel border. The missile fire, apparently a spontaneous response to the attacks, seems to have killed at least 20.

Boaz Bismuth, an astute Israeli commentator, asks whether Morsi’s new Islamist government will realize that “Israel and Egypt have a mutual interest in maintaining a peaceful border and protecting it from Islamist terrorist organizations that don’t hesitate to kill their Muslim brethren….”

Morsi, says Bismuth,

needs to understand that a quiet border means minimizing hostile incidents. Minimizing incidents means more tourism, as opposed to the current situation of more pyramids than tourists. Tourists help bring back foreign investors, who in turn help rehabilitate the economy. All of this is crucial to Egypt, which has 85 million mouths to feed.

Yet the question, as Bismuth goes on to acknowledge, is more complicated than that. At present—with Israel’s permission—Egypt has about seven army battalions in Sinai, more than allowed by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. So far this force has done next to nothing to clamp down on Sinai terror. Egypt, meanwhile, claims it needs still more troops in Sinai to do the job effectively.

That, notes Bismuth,

is perhaps the most worrying aspect of this entire story: Israel expects Egypt to confront what is happening in Sinai and regain control over the area…. No one knows though what the future will hold and what events can unfold in a region that is turning into a powder keg….

[Morsi] can assign the army the “dirty deed” of cooperating with Israel, which is its job anyway. We can still trust the Egyptian military tomorrow, but no one can promise us we’ll be able to two days from now.

In other words, by allowing the Egyptian military—if it is so inclined—to clean up the Sinai terror gangs, Israel could help create an even worse threat, especially if Morsi’s Brotherhood eventually wrests control from the Supreme Military Council.

Israeli officials are, however, reportedly skeptical that Egypt will systematically crack down on the terror. If not, then Israel could find itself facing a different dilemma if the attacks continue and especially if some of them succeed: whether to keep relying on defensive measures that may prove inadequate, or invade Sinai (like Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009 when terror from those locales became intolerable) and risk—again—war with Egypt, which is what the terrorists are trying to provoke in the first place.

And the final irony is that these close-to-irresolvable dilemmas Israel now faces stem from the 1979 peace treaty, under whose terms Israel withdrew all of its forces from Sinai in the hope that this would enable peace rather than terror. A body known as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) was created and stationed in Sinai to make sure things went smoothly. It’s still there—though hardly mentioned anymore and basically forgotten.

All this at a time when some are still obsessed with the idea of Israel withdrawing from the West Bank and setting up—with security guarantees, of course—yet another Arab state there. Take the strategic threat Sinai now poses to relatively scantly populated southern Israel, think of the axis of central Israel running from the coastal plain to Jerusalem, and multiply by a few dozen.