Securing the Sinai

More Troops Won't Keep the Peace or Save the Egyptian-Israeli Relationship

Courtesy Reuters

Instability in Sinai has escalated to unprecedented levels in the last two months. Militants have committed attacks against government offices and infrastructure and used the territory to stage assaults against Israel. The latest incidents -- the August 18 terror attack in Eilat, in southern Israel, and the subsequent killing of Egyptian policemen on the Egyptian-Israeli border by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers -- have brought Egypt and Israel to the lowest point in relations during their 30-year peace.

The most immediate cause of the heightened tensions in the Sinai is the collapse of the Egyptian police force as a result of the February revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. As Mubarak's rule was unraveling in January and February, Bedouin protesters battled the police in Sinai towns with machine guns and grenades, forcing them to withdraw. They have not returned. The resulting security vacuum has allowed smuggling and infiltration into and out of Gaza to thrive and created space for radical extremist groups.

The Egyptian government's response to the rising instability in the Sinai has been simply to send more military forces. In August, in coordination with Israel, Egypt moved thousands of troops to Sinai as part of a campaign called Operation Eagle. 

This approach is based on the assumption, widely accepted in Cairo, that the root cause of instability in Sinai is the lack of army troops, whose numbers are limited by the provisions of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. As many Egyptian policymakers and analysts see it, the solution is therefore to amend the treaty to allow greater military presence in the area.

But such a strategy is wrongheaded for several reasons. For starters, although Israel has agreed to allow additional Egyptian troops into Sinai (totaling about 3,500 soldiers), the Netanyahu government is unlikely to give its consent to a permanent surge when it fears the emergence of an Islamist-dominated government in Egypt.

On a deeper level, however, this approach misreads the violence in Sinai as some isolated attacks originating from Gaza

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