Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula surfaces as new battleground

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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