Islamist terror attacks on border guards in the Sinai Peninsula have shocked Egypt, where the government may use them as an occasion to reform security systems in the area.
Sixteen Egyptian border guards were shot dead on August 5, as they were about to perform their nightly Ramadan prayers. The terrorists killed them in a surprise attack, took their vehicles and drove to the Karm Abu Salem checkpoint and began firing into Israeli territory.
Since the crossing was not far from the Gaza Strip, Israel at first suspected the Palestinian group Hamas of being behind the attack. But the gunmen later shot dead by Israeli soldiers proved to be Egyptians. For both Israeli and Egyptian military leaders, this fact only made clearer how precarious the security situation is on the border between the two countries.
History of violence
There have been a number of attacks on the Sinai Peninsula before, though usually in its southern half – where the tourist industry is concentrated. A particularly brutal attack was carried out in 2004, when 34 people were killed at a hotel near the Israeli beach resort of Eilat. A year later Islamist extremists killed eight tourists at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in Egypt, while another 23 people died in a series of coordinated bomb attacks in 2006.
Attacks on the gas-pipeline from Egypt to Israel became more frequent after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, and this August terrorists also attacked a bus near Eilat, killing eight Israelis.
Smuggling between the northern Sinai and Gaza has also increased since the revolution began. In July, US secret services indicated the presence of "criminal networks with possible connections to terrorist groups in the region," and they offered a significant detail – business crimes and terrorism can no longer be separated in the region.
The dangerous situation on the peninsula has long been known, says Palestinian journalist and political scientist Khaled Hroub. He says it dates back to the Camp David peace agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, which stipulated that there be only a limited Egyptian military presence in the border region. "Since then only a few hundred Egyptian soldiers have been guarding a huge area," he says. "It's an impossible task. These incidents could easily have happened earlier."
Hroub added that such attacks could repeat themselves soon. "What is needed is a paradigm shift that gives Egypt greater power on military and security questions," he says.
Hroub is convinced that such an agreement would counter the smuggling problem in the northern Sinai, which he also blames on the Camp David deal. Since the government cannot adequately control and protect the area, he argues, they care very little for the wellbeing of its inhabitants, who consequently suffer massive unemployment and poverty.
"Because of that, huge frustration and anger towards the Egyptian government have built up in the northern Sinai over the past 30 years," says Hroub. "These people have been left to fend for themselves."
For this reason, one section of the population has taken two available options – smuggling into the Gaza Strip to solve their economic problems, and radical Islam, which offers spiritual guidance for the desperate population. After several decades of militancy in the region, Islam in the northern Sinai has taken on extremist tendencies.
Competition for Hamas
That's why, explains Hroub, Hamas is also unhappy with the presence of Egyptian extremists on the border with Gaza, which is why the Palestinian group played an important role in securing the border – he believes Hamas fears the Islamists just as much as Egyptian and Israeli authorities.
"Israel and Egypt fear these groups for their terrorist attacks," he says. "For Hamas, meanwhile, they are competitors in their own backyard. These groups carry out their acts in the name of Islam, just as Hamas does. On top of that, it also supports the Palestinian cause."
Israel is being forced to recognize that its southern border is becoming less and less secure, which is why it is currently investing in massive reinforcements of it, and Israelis are also following political developments in Egypt more closely. The dismissal of Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan did at first cause consternation in Israel, said Günter Meyer, director of the Center for the Study of the Arab World at the University of Mainz.
There was some relief when it emerged that their successors were also established members of the army. At the same time, says Meyer, Israelis are aware of how difficult the relationship with Egypt remains. "Israel's reputation is so ruined among the Egyptian population it can hardly even hope to improve its negative image through some positive gestures."
Rebuilding the security system
What is clear, says Hroub, is that the security situation at the Israeli-Egyptian border will now almost certainly change. The horror sparked by the attack on the border guards is expected to prompt the government to take matters into its own hands. "I expect Morsi and his government will use the incidents as an occasion to alter the entire security system in the Sinai desert – whether unilaterally or in cooperation with Israel."