Even as the Israeli and the Hamas administration in Gaza agree on a ceasefire, the significance of this deal is diluted by events over the border in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Since the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak early last year, the Sinai Peninsula has seen a growing Islamist insurgency by local Bedouins and al-Qaida-linked fighters from elsewhere with the aim of creating a puritanical Muslim state.
The insurgency has also enhanced the Sinai’s role as the supply route for weapons from Libya and Iran, especially rockets to be used against Israel by Hamas, which are smuggled into Gaza through an estimated 400 tunnels under the border with Egypt.
And Sinai is also emerging as front-line territory for other militant groups, some more radical than Hamas, wanting to attack Israel and undermine the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Despite concerted efforts by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to restore control over the Sinai, much of the region of sparsely populated desert and mountains remains outside central government control.
In many areas of the Sinai, which is about the size of New Brunswick, local fundamentalist religious leaders have tried to fill the government void by setting up Shariah courts to dispense Islamic justice, much as the al-Qaida-linked alShabaab extremists did in Somalia before being overthrown by African Union forces earlier this year.
Scores of soldiers, policemen and militants have been killed in the Sinai fighting, which involves almost daily attacks on police stations and military outposts punctuated by more intense battles as the authorities retaliate.
And like other lawless havens – such as the areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, Somalia in the Horn of Africa, and northern Mali in the Sahara – Sinai has become a magnet for Islamic radicals.
There are reports of perhaps as many as 2,000 fighters from various parts of the Arab world establishing bases in Sinai, and then slipping into Gaza to either join Hamas in attacks on Israel or to launch their own actions.
The increasing importance of the Sinai front is adding new layers of complexity and danger to the confrontation between Israel and its neighbours, which has shown no signs of coming to a peaceful conclusion since the founding of the Jewish state after the Second World War.
Confronting the Sinai insurgency has been a severe test of the relations between Israel and Egypt’s Morsi, whose background is with the Muslim Brotherhood, the puritanical Islamic organization that inspired both al-Qaida and Hamas.
So far, Morsi has placed more importance on maintaining the 1979 peace agreement with Israel than in playing to the radical audience.
Israel also has had to carefully judge how far it can go in response to the rocket attacks on its territory from Gaza without pushing Morsi further than he can go without losing political credibility.
And even Hamas is challenged by the even more radical groups setting up camp in the Sinai.
Hamas controls Gaza, but is in a tussle for power among Palestinians with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which is dominant in the West Bank.
Hamas is developing as a political entity, and wants to be taken seriously as the representative of Palestinian people on the international stage. The presence of even more radical groups in Sinai able to independently affect relations with Israel and Egypt is therefore not entirely welcome.
The Sinai insurgency by Islamic radicals in the peninsula began amid the chaotic fallout from the military’s ouster of Mubarak on Feb. 11 last year.
The first attacks were on gas pipelines running into Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and the branch line going to Israel.
At the end of July, six policemen were killed in an attack on their post in ElArish, and a few days later a group claiming to be the Sinai branch of al-Qaida declared its determination to create an entirely Islamic state in the Sinai.
At the same time, a group apparently made up of fighters from Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab world entered Israel from Sinai and attacked both military outposts and civilians.
Egypt poured troops into the peninsula to try to clear out the radicals. But the effectiveness of the response was diluted by the provisions of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The Camp David Accord says the Sinai will remain a demilitarized zone. Heavy weapons such as tanks and helicopter gunships can only be used there with agreement from both Cairo and the Israeli government.
The response was more potent in August this year after militants attacked a military base in Sinai, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers. The 35 fighters then stole two armoured cars and rammed the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel, where six of them were killed by Israeli soldiers.
In the first sign of a working relationship between Israel and Morsi, Israel’s security cabinet agreed to allow the Egyptian forces to deploy heavy weapons in what was called the “Sinai cleansing operation.”
Coordination between Israel and the Morsi government, including the sharing of intelligence information, has continued in the months since.
But so has the fighting. And there are no clear signs that Egyptian forces have yet gained the upper hand against the insurgents.
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