For what is formally a demilitarized zone, the Sinai peninsular has recently been the scene of some exceptionally ferocious military activity.
The obligation to keep the peninsular demilitarized was laid on Egypt by the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, as a corollary of the requirement on Israel to withdraw completely. Since 1981 these stipulations, together with the other provisions of the treaty, have been monitored by an international peacekeeping force set up by agreement between the US, Egypt and Israel.
The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) is a 13-nation organisation of well over 1500 personnel, with a remit to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms.” Headquartered in Rome, it has developed a complex military command and institutional structure – so elaborate, that it issues its own medals to all personnel who complete a 6-month stint in the Sinai. It does not, apparently, issue medals for gallantry in action – which is just as well, for it would have little cause to do so. The MFO has been conspicuous for its lack of visibility in the past few months.
It is, in fact, difficult to conceive precisely what role the MFO envisages for itself in current circumstances where, ever since Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi was toppled, militant groups have been killing members of the police, soldiers and civilians on a daily basis in the Sinai peninsular. The last entry on the “News” page of the MFO’s impressive multi-page website is the fact that on April 9, 2013 Australia became a donor to the organisation. Nothing about how, early last week, two Egyptian soldiers were shot and killed near the town of Sheikh Zawid. Or that on August 8 terrorists attempted to bomb a police training base in El Arish – fortunately the bombs detonated earlier than terrorists had planned, killing four would-be attackers. Or that on the 9th, an Egyptian base in the city of Rafiah, near Gaza, came under attack from a mixture of gunfire, rocket-propelled grenade missiles, and mortar shells.
Mohammad Fayez Farahat, from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, believes that ever since the fall of Egypt’s ex-President Mubarak in early 2011 all kinds of extremist groups have been recruiting fighters, gathering arms and trying to establish an Islamist state on the Sinai. Recently, he says, organizations like Jahish al-Islam or Ansar Beit al-Makdis have emerged, some affiliated with Al Qaeda and most linked with extremist groups in the Gaza Strip.
The map of terrorist organizations in Sinai includes dozens of groups scattered across the peninsular. Some are connected to external groups: al-Qaeda branches from Iran and Yemen, World Jihad, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, last but not least, Gaza. There are also armed Bedouins in the region, disaffected with the Egyptian government, who subsist by smuggling people, goods and weapons.
Eilat in the south of Israel, has been under fire from Sinai on several occasions. An attack on August 5, 2012, was particularly spectacular: armed fighters attacked an Egyptian army post, killing 16 soldiers and bursting through the Israeli border in a hijacked army vehicle. In the resulting gunfight, at least five assailants died. In April 2013 two Grad rockets were fired at the town from Sinai, and only last week, Eilat airport was temporarily closed due to an unspecified security threat. The following day, a cell of armed Islamists in Sinai was killed by an air strike. Reports suggested that an Israeli Air Force drone, in cooperation with Egyptian forces, had been responsible for the strike.
Most recently, on August 12 Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system successfully intercepted a rocket fired at Eilat. Palestinian sources reported that the extremist Salafist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which operates from Sinai, claimed responsibility.
Sinai has become increasingly lawless and violent since the fall of Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi. Recently Israel has given Cairo a green light to reinforce its troops in the border region, and in a bid to restore order, Egypt’s military has deployed significant forces in Sinai.
Events in Egypt are clearly a critical factor in the increased violence emanating from Sinai. The overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president and government have resulted in a determined effort by the MB to restore the previous regime. Extremist jihadist groups sympathetic to the MB have been swept up into the struggle against the military overlords of Egypt’s interim government, and in particular against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who masterminded the coup and is now deputy prime minister.
One report has it that, immediately following the July 3 overthrow of president Morsi, six MB officials smuggled themselves into the Gaza Strip to lead an uprising against the new interim government. The group, headed by Mahmud Izzat Ibrahim, is reported to have set up a command post at the Gaza Beach Hotel for operations against Egyptian military and security targets, in collaboration with Hamas and armed Al Qaeda-linked Salafist Bedouin in Sinai. The group planned their revolt to spread quickly out from Sinai to Egypt proper and topple the interim rulers in Cairo.
General el-Sisi, for his part, knows that the Brotherhood’s underground command center in the Gaza Beach Hotel must be destroyed – and for effective action in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian military needs help from Israel’s Defense Forces, just as the IDF needs the Egyptian army to counteract the al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists in Sinai who are dedicated to attacking Israel as well as Egypt.
On August 11, the Egyptian military reported that an operation had been launched against armed groups in the Sinai believed to have been plotting attacks on security forces and other targets. The assault, which involved Apache helicopters striking areas south of Sheikh Zuwaid in north Sinai, resulted in the death of at least seven people, and the arrest of six others.
Israel’s Defense minister commented: “The Egyptian army is fighting first and foremost to defend Egyptian citizens and sovereignty. We will not let rumors and speculation impair the peace relations between our countries.”
Where has the MFO been in all this ferocious activity? There has been little sign of it – scarcely surprising, since reports indicate that its personnel are holed up in its northern Sinai base, on maximum alert. More than this, it is reported that the MFO’s 30-year presence in Sinai may be drawing to a close, and that the organisation is awaiting evacuation, lock, stock and barrel, to Europe. A rather ignominious end to an international peacekeeping operation with a reasonably successful record.
Now it is up to Egypt and Israel, acting together in the spirit of the Peace Treaty, to restore order to the Sinai and eradicate those bent on achieving their undesirable ends through remorseless terror.
About the author: Neville Teller
Neville Teller is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."