- Recent events indicate a power vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula, caused by domestic Egyptian turmoil. This void has brought together disgruntled Bedouin tribes, extreme Egyptian jihadists and armed Palestinian Islamist groups from the Gaza Strip.
- Whilst Hamas has no interest in escalation, it is challenged in Gaza by other armed extremist groups that want to attack Israel, and is constantly trying to balance its ideology and jihadi character with its responsibilities as a government.
- Within Egypt, the strong anti-Israel sentiment of the Egyptian public is having a powerful influence on the domestic political debate and the government.
- Whilst Egypt has become a source of greater potential risk for Israel, at the same time Egypt’s role in the Gilad Shalit deal and in brokering a recent ceasefire on the Gaza-Israel border has demonstrated its increased mediating capacity between Israel and Hamas.
- However, if the anti-Israel sentiment on the Egyptian street leads to a further deterioration in relations between Israel and Egypt, the capability of Egypt to play a mediating role will be undermined.
- The international community should encourage Egypt to maintain the peace with Israel, and to prevent the Sinai from becoming a failed region, not only by military means but through investment and dialogue with local Bedouins.
Four major interrelated events in recent months signify the importance and sensitivity of developments in the Egypt–Gaza–Israel triangle:
- On 18 August, a cross-border terror attack in southern Israel – originating in Gaza and crossing through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula – resulted in the killing of eight Israelis, and sparked a round of violence between Israel and armed factions in Gaza.
- The unintended deaths of five Egyptian soldiers caught in Israel’s return of fire were used to incite Egyptian youth and Islamists against Israel, culminating on 9 September in the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by an Egyptian mob.
- On 18 October, Israel swapped over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in a deal concluded with Hamas through Egyptian mediation.
- In late October, another round of violence erupted between Israel and armed extremists in Gaza, following the firing of rockets into Israel. Once again, Egypt brokered a ceasefire.
Against the background of the ‘Arab Spring’, these events demonstrate a number of key elements: how Gaza and Egypt have become sources of potential increased instability for Israel; the importance of the role the Arab masses have come to play; and how easily they could be turned against Israel. At the same time, they demonstrate that despite domestic turmoil, the Egyptian government can play an enhanced critical mediating role between Israel and Hamas, and perhaps in other fields.
Security deterioration in the Sinai
On 18 August, a group of approximately 15 armed men carried out a cross-border attack in Israel, on a road leading to the southern Israeli town of Eilat. Eight Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed. Five Egyptian soldiers were inadvertently killed by Israeli fire whilst Israel pursued the terrorists.
According to Israeli intelligence, the attack was planned and launched by the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), an armed Islamist extremist group in Gaza. This group, closely affiliated with Hamas, was also responsible for the Shalit kidnapping in 2006 (together with Hamas) and for the killing of three Americans in Gaza in 2003. The PRC recruited Egyptian residents of the Sinai to participate, heavily equipped the attackers, dressed them in uniforms almost identical to Egyptian military gear and dispatched them in daylight very close to an Egyptian position whose soldiers watched passively. The attack was designed to both kill and kidnap Israelis, with the hope that its chosen location – almost 200 kilometres south of Gaza – would disguise its origin and thus avert an escalation between Israel and Gaza.
Israel focused its immediate response on the PRC, resorting for the first time in years to targeted killings and taking out the PRC leadership in Gaza directly responsible for the attack. In the round of escalation that followed over the next eight days, armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, including Hamas, fired some 150 rockets and mortars into Israel whilst Israel responded with targeted air strikes. An informal ceasefire was ultimately declared through intensive Egyptian mediation.
Three immediate conclusions emerged from this incident:
- The attack was possible due to the loosening of Egyptian control over the Sinai.
- Whilst Hamas had no interest in a serious escalation, it was dragged into the violence by other armed groups and took longer than in the past to contain them and commit them to a ceasefire. This conclusion was underlined, yet again, in a separate round of violence, sparked in late October by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) firing rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel.
- It signified that post-Mubarak Egypt can play an enhanced mediating role between Israel and Hamas, since the latter – pressurised by the changes in the region – has become more dependent on Egypt and regards its current leadership as friendlier. For its part, one of Israel’s most important considerations in containing the situation was its desire not to erode relations with Egypt against the background of relative Israeli isolation in the region.
The incident, however, sparked tension between Egypt and both Hamas and Israel. Egypt was enraged by the use of its territory (and citizens) to stage a terror attack, the killing of its soldiers and implicit Israeli accusations that Egypt enabled the incident to occur. It demanded an official Israeli apology for the killing of its soldiers, which was ultimately delivered on the day the Shalit deal was announced in October.
The August attack highlighted the power vacuum in the Sinai caused by domestic Egyptian turmoil. This void has brought together Bedouin tribes disgruntled with the central regime, extreme Egyptian jihadists – some of whom broke out of Egyptian jails following the turmoil in Cairo at the beginning of the year – and armed Palestinian Islamist groups from Gaza.
The Sinai is a large area inhabited by Bedouin tribes. Historically, they have been discriminated against by the Egyptian regime. More than one-fifth of them are denied Egyptian citizenship, all of them are denied land ownership and they are excluded from mandatory conscription and senior positions in the Sinai governorates. The Sinai has also been deprived of economic investment and development (except for tourism sites in the south). As a result, Sinai Bedouins feel removed from ‘Nile Valley’ Egypt and have developed an underground economy of cross-border smuggling, with an emphasis on smuggling to Gaza. The whole region has become a breeding ground for Islamist extremism and violence.
Since the onset of political change in Egypt, the pipeline which transfers Egyptian gas through the Sinai to Israel and Jordan, accounting for some 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas consumption, has been sabotaged seven times. The smuggling of weapons through the Sinai into Gaza has stepped up considerably, including weapons from war-stricken Libya. Several police stations have been attacked by Bedouins, most notably in the 29 July attack in the northern town of El-Arish by an armed Salafi group calling itself ‘Al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula’, leaving five dead. The Egyptian authorities strongly suspect the involvement of extreme Islamist elements from Gaza in this incident. These events, coupled with the use of the Sinai by Gazan extremists as a launching pad for terror acts against Israel, have pushed Egypt to adopt a cautious attitude towards its previously announced intention of fully opening the border between Egypt and Gaza at the Rafah crossing.
Alarmed by the instability and its potential strategic implications, the ruling Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) launched Operation Eagle in August, sending enhanced military and police forces to root out extreme jihadi elements in the northern Sinai and prevent smuggling and terror attacks on Israel. On 13 November, Egyptian authorities announced the arrest of an Egyptian belonging to an extreme Salafi organisation affiliated with Al-Qaida, suspected of playing a key role in the attacks on the police station in El-Arish and in southern Israel. To help with the Egyptian efforts, Israel agreed to the temporary, renewable addition of Egyptian police and armed forces in the Sinai, exceeding the terms of the military annex to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. For the first time, Egyptian forces were deployed close to the Israeli town of Eilat. However, it is not clear whether these steps are sufficient to reinstate stability in the Sinai.
Changing Egyptian domestic politics
Egypt is undergoing a period of deep transition. Currently ruled by the SCAF and a temporary government, Egypt is entering a long period of elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to strengthen. In a recent show of force, Islamists have challenged the SCAF over the future constitution and elections, in demonstrations leading to violence. The country has also been struck by a severe economic crisis. It is not clear where Egypt is headed.
What is clear, however, is that the Egyptian masses have now acquired a strong voice that the regime must take into account, and the accompanying anti-Israel sentiment could easily be manipulated to influence the domestic political debate and the government. The potential for public energy in the street to be directed against Israel was evident in the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September.
The background to this incident is also to be found in the August attack on Israel. The accidental deaths of Egyptian soldiers were easily manipulated within Egypt to spark anti-Israel sentiment, triggering public demands to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador from Israel and abrogate the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The public atmosphere hardened the official Egyptian demand for an Israeli apology.
Although Israel went out of its way to appease Egypt by publicly expressing sorrow, agreeing to a joint investigation of the incident and dispatching a military general to present its findings to the Egyptian military leadership, the SCAF did not act to contain the masses until it was almost too late. Soon after the incident, crowds began daily demonstrations opposite the Israeli embassy in Cairo. An Egyptian youth who climbed the building and burnt the Israeli flag became a national hero. On 9 September, thousands besieged the embassy and, without intervention by Egyptian security forces, tore down its outer protective wall and stormed it. Six Israeli security guards were rescued at the last moment by Egyptian special forces, only after the personal intervention of US President Barack Obama. Only in November did Israel’s ambassador return to Cairo for a farewell visit. His replacement is due to arrive in December, but the authorities are yet to find a new site for the embassy. Embarrassed by the incident, the Egyptian authorities decided to reinstate the infamous emergency laws.
The Israeli defence establishment currently enjoys good relations and a close dialogue with the SCAF, but it is clear to Israel that in the post-Mubarak era, the SCAF cannot ignore the public atmosphere and needs to constantly balance Egypt’s strategic interests and domestic pressures. This situation is not likely to improve after the upcoming Egyptian elections.
Egypt’s potential as mediator between Hamas and Israel
It took Israel and Hamas more than five years to conclude a deal for the release of Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails. One of the reasons the deal came about when it did is a change in the relationship between Hamas and Egypt.
It seems that the political changes in the region had a sobering effect on Hamas. In recent months, Hamas has come under heavy pressure. Its political bureau in Syria is at risk since it cannot support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive Alawite regime, enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood (from which Hamas emerged before and during the first intifada); it has come across economic difficulties mainly due to reduced Iranian and other external funding; and it has seen a low point in its popularity, especially in Gaza, due to bad governance, economic difficulties and its ideological rejection of the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the UN. Hamas badly needed an achievement. In July 2011, it softened its positions regarding the terms of the deal and opened the way for it to ultimately materialise.
Israel’s government, for its part, saw both opportunity and necessity in realising the deal. Apart from domestic pressure to free Shalit, Israel is having to make decisions in an unsettling regional environment rife with shifting sands, the loss of Turkey as an ally and the challenge posed by the Palestinian bid at the UN.
This setting afforded Egypt the opportunity to play an effective mediating role, since both Hamas and Israel were in greater need of closer relations with it. Along with its successful containment of the Israel-Gaza violence in August and October, Egypt had replaced in recent months the German interlocutor in the Shalit deal, and it was through its active mediation that the deal was finally concluded and implemented.
Challenges to Hamas within Gaza
The Egyptian role is important to Hamas for yet another reason. Hamas is challenged by other armed extremist groups in Gaza and is constantly trying to balance its ideology and jihadi character with its responsibilities as a government.
A notable case in point is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second largest organisation in Gaza after Hamas and the closest Palestinian faction to Iran. Since Operation Cast Lead, this group has armed itself, with active Iranian support, with thousands of rockets and its current arsenal rivals Hamas’s. Encouraged by Iran, it feels less bound by any ceasefire arrangement with Israel and is motivated by the desire to continue the ‘struggle’ with Israel, firing a rocket deep into Israel in late October in an unprovoked attack. Israel responded by targeting the PIJ group responsible for the firing, killing several activists including a senior commander.
Although Hamas had no interest in escalation, it felt it could not restrain the PIJ from responding and allowed for another round of violence with Israel, without participating itself. Egyptian mediation ultimately helped Hamas to bridge the gaps between ideology, public opinion and responsibility by convincing the PIJ to accept another informal ceasefire.
Implications for Israel
In the wake of the regional political upheaval, Egypt has become a source of greater potential instability and risk for Israel, but at the same time has increased its mediating capacity vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza.
For the foreseeable future, it is safe to assume that any Egyptian government will uphold the peace treaty with Israel, even if the Muslim Brotherhood becomes part of a ruling government. This is due to Egypt’s strategic interest in maintaining its international standing and relations with the US.
As long as the existing Egyptian military establishment remains the dominant power in the country, Egypt will remain a highly important strategic partner for Israel in the face of the regional threats of Islamic radicalism, extremism and violence. The value Israel puts on this relationship was illustrated by Israel’s apology to Egypt for mistakenly killing Egyptian soldiers in the cross-border attack in August, even whilst it refused to apologise to Turkey over the May 2010 flotilla incident.
Furthermore, with relations between Hamas and Egypt improving and the growing dependence of the former on the latter, Egypt has the increased potential to play an important restraining role on the regime in Gaza, particularly in periods when cross-border violence escalates. This is important, given the fact that the Shalit deal does not signal an Israel-Hamas rapprochement. Emboldened by the deal, Hamas has threatened to kidnap more Israelis. If a confrontation develops between Israel and the PA, Hamas could potentially be pushed into renewed violence against Israel. A Muslim Brotherhood victory in the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections could encourage Hamas to take on a more defiant position. The question is whether Egypt can extend its mediating capacity beyond Israel-Hamas relations to such realms as Israel-PA relations and the peace process or Israel’s relations with other regional actors. That depends not only on Egypt’s regional standing but also on its internal political developments and atmosphere.
It seems that given anti-Israel public sentiment in Egypt and the growing political power of Islamists, including the prospect for a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the upcoming elections, future Egyptian governments will not be able to maintain the current degree of cooperation with Israel. Over time, the negative political atmosphere could also impact on the existing cooperation between the two defence establishments. If Israel’s relations with the PA descend into political and legal confrontations, as may be the case, it will further poison Egyptian public opinion against Israel. This is likely to increase the significance of the issue in Egyptian election campaigns, and dramatically build up the pressure on Israel-Egypt relations. If relations between Israel and Egypt do deteriorate, the capability of Egypt to play a mediating role will be undermined.
The tension between potential risks and benefits for Israel in its relations with Egypt is also present in the issue of Egypt’s military deployment in the Sinai. Egypt would like to beef up its military deployment in the Sinai, in contradiction of the military annex to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, so as to reassert its effective rule there. Whereas such an act clearly serves Israel’s interests, Israel is concerned about the precedent of opening the treaty, especially in light of public pressures in Egypt to amend or abrogate it. To date, Egypt has not filed an official request to amend the military annex, but should it do so, Israel will be faced with an acute dilemma.
In any event, the changing situations in Cairo, the Sinai and Gaza have triggered fresh thinking in the Israeli defence establishment regarding Israel’s 150-mile border with Egypt. Israel already had been accelerating the construction of a border fence. However, it has now decided to adapt it to meet the threat of terrorism, rather than the infiltration of civilians such as criminals, migrants or refugees. Concurrently, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is re-examining the deployment of its forces along the border for both routine and emergency situations, as well as intelligence collection in the Sinai. The IDF will also have to adjust its long-term system of strategic warning against threatening changes emanating from the Egyptian scene.
Israel is also acting to minimise the risks and damages of escalation from Gaza, by stepping up the production and deployment of its Iron Dome system, designed to intercept short-range rockets fired from Gaza. However, in the next few years the system will provide only a partial response to the close to 10,000 rockets now stockpiled by Hamas and other armed groups.
International attention should be given to developments in the Egypt-Gaza-Israel triangle. Egypt is in a unique position to prevent escalation between Hamas and Israel. However, all parties concerned should be careful not to embolden Hamas at the expense of the PA and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Egypt should also be encouraged to reinstate stability in the Sinai and prevent it from becoming a failed region, not only by military means but also through investment and dialogue with local Bedouins. The international community could make an important economic contribution to this end, and Egypt should be encouraged to take measures to better integrate the Bedouin population.
Egypt is a key actor in a volatile region undergoing historic transformation. The international community should attach high priority to investing political and economic capital to minimise the risks inherent in the Egyptian situation and maximise opportunities and benefits. Specifically, Egypt should be encouraged to develop a culture of democracy, maintain and honour the peace treaty with Israel and contribute to regional stability.