A week that started with the release of a video, by the Egyptian affiliate of the militant group Islamic State, threatening Israel that it will “pay a high price” and rather soon, ended in the targeted assassination of the organization’s commander Abu Doa’a Al-Ansari by the Egyptian Air Force.
The recorded message threatened that “Jews will not remain in Palestine, we will turn it into a graveyard for Jews.” It is not clear whether the two developments are related, though it brought back to the public consciousness the changing political terrain of the Sinai Peninsula and the threat posed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (supporters of Jerusalem).
For three decades following the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the vast territory of the Sinai Peninsula acted as a rather uneventful buffer zone between the two countries. With its friendly, though very small, population, beautiful scenery and historical sites, this was an ideal ground for a flourishing tourist industry. And so it was until the collapse of the Mubarak regime in 2011, when the peninsula descended into a state of lawlessness and direct challenges to Cairo’s authority rapidly emerged.
The state security apparatus that ensured the Egyptian regime’s control collapsed almost overnight. Thus a political vacuum was created, initially filled by the sparse Bedouin population, but Jihadists were quickly attracted, some of them already present in the Peninsula and others from abroad. Gradually this also started posing a potential threat to Israel. A threat that Israel, with only limited justification, connects with its long standing enmity with the Hamas in Gaza.
Israel reinforced her border with Egypt with a 240 kilometer barrier, aiming not only to stop the infiltration of militants, but sadly also to block the arrival of asylum seekers from Sudan, Ethiopia and EretriaYossi Mekelberg
The 1978 Camp David Peace accords between Egypt and Israel prevailed, despite some severe trials and tribulations along the way. Nevertheless, the current active insurgency by the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, incentivized Cairo and Jerusalem to strategically cooperate closer than ever. Albeit being a relatively small organisation, with between 1000 and 1500 active members, it proved to be proactive and quite deadly since its emergence in January of 2011, first as an al-Qaeda wing and since late 2014 as a so-called ISIS affiliate.
The organization intensified its militant activity following the coup in 2013 that ousted the Muslim Brothers from power and propelled General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the presidency. Though relatively small in number, this is an active group of militants with an ambitious agenda intent on harming Egyptian, Israeli and international interests. It first came into public and security forces’ awareness when it claimed responsibility for the bombing of the gas pipeline in the Sinai, which supplies natural gas to Jordan and Israel.
This was followed by carrying out a cross-border rocket attack, firing from Sinai into the Israeli tourist resort of Eliat, and attacking Israeli military border patrol. These attacks threatened the peaceful border between Israel and Egypt, the latter’s authority in the Sinai Peninsula and beyond, and important economic interests. Neither Egypt nor Israel could afford to remain idle and not respond to these strategic threats.
Insurgency to terror
What began as a local insurgency by local Bedouin tribes that were oppressed for many years by the Mubarak government, turned into a much wider international phenomenon. Operationally the organization expanded its assaults as far as Cairo and Giza and became increasingly daring, planting a bomb in a Russian airplane that took off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport last October and bringing it down, claiming the lives of all 224 people on-board.
These attacks caused an enormous international uproar and damaged the Egyptian tourist economy. These actions could not be left without an adequate and coordinated response from Egypt and Israel. As a consequence, the security establishments in both the countries stepped up their intelligence and military cooperation.
For both the countries the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, known also as the Sinai Province of ISIS, while posing a direct threat, also feed into wider strategic concerns. In its ongoing battle with the Muslim Brotherhood the Egyptian government sees asserting its authority in the Sinai Peninsula as a demonstration of force vis-a-vis the rest of the country, in addition to leading fighting against extreme militancy around the region. It is also crucial to its economy, especially the tourist industry, that terrorism is contained.
Israel reinforced her border with Egypt with a 240 kilometer barrier, aiming not only to stop the infiltration of militants, but sadly also to block the arrival of asylum seekers from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eretria. Both countries see the Palestinian Hamas fundamentalist movement closely associated with extremists in the Sinai and are anxious to break this connection and thereby avoid exacerbating already existing political conditions and risks.
One of the pillars of the security arrangement of the peace agreement signed with Egypt was to maintain the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, as a buffer zone against a surprise attack. Israel’s readiness to abandon this principle testifies to the country’s grave concern over ISIS affiliates presence on its southern border.
Israel has always maintained that in order to allay its fears of a surprise Egyptian attack, this enormous body of land – three times the size of the state of Israel – must remain a demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries. More than 30 years later, with Israel’s full acquiescence, Egypt deployed its ground troops and operates its air force in facing the menace that neither of the countries had envisaged when they signed a peace agreement long ago.
While it is imperative for Egypt and Israel to contain the ISIS threat in the Sinai Peninsula, military force alone does not and will not address the root causes that tragically create the fertile ground for these extreme and terrorist movements to exist.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.