Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Hamas in Sinai

Since Operation Cast Lead − Israel’s military incursion into Hamas-occupied Gaza, which ended in January 2009 – Hamas has, in the words of the English poet Alexander Pope, been “willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” Or at least it has been prepared to embark on truces, formal or informal, aimed at restricting its own rocket attacks. Hamas has also attempted − unsuccessfully − to control fanatic Islamist elements within Gaza that have continued indiscriminately to launch rockets at Israeli civilians.

The Muslim Brotherhood's (MB) presidential victory in Egypt has altered the balance of self-interest – as perceived by Hamas and other jihadist elements. Regardless of the results of the re-run parliamentary elections in Egypt, or the eventual extent of the newly-elected president’s powers, the MB has clearly proved that it has a substantial popular mandate. Its success has, overall, emboldened Hamas not only within the Gaza Strip, but in Sinai as well.

The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt saw Israel vacate and demilitarize the Sinai – which IDF forces had over-run during the conflict. Since then, the Sinai, which shares a 165-mile border with Israel, has served as an important territorial buffer between the two countries.

On June 18, two gunmen infiltrated Israel from the Sinai and killed an Israeli civilian working on the construction of a border fence. The two gunmen were later killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli forces. Media reports indicated that the gunmen had received helped from within Gaza. Subsequently, four other militants were killed during two Israeli air strikes into Gaza. Hamas responded by launching rockets at southern Israel. From June 18 to 24 over 150 medium-range rockets, mortar shells and long-range Grad-model Katyushas rockets were fired at southern Israeli communities.

After three days of fighting, however, Hamas’s military wing – the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades – announced that it was willing to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce. Hamas, for the time being, does not see a major escalation of conflict with Israel to be in its best interests.

From the time Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2006, the Sinai became the main smuggling route for weapons, people, and goods into and out of Gaza.

The interregnum following Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution and the subsequent weakening of authority in Cairo opened the large, sparsely populated desert peninsula of Sinai for armed Palestinian groups and global jihadists to mix with Bedouins who were disgruntled with the central Egyptian regime. The fall of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, and the political upheavals that followed, have led to a dramatic decline in security in the Sinai. This security decline has led to attacks on the pipeline transporting natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, the kidnapping of foreign tourists, and assaults against police stations. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, have also come under attack.

We can only speculate as to the extent of Hamas' involvement in these activities. However, Israel, as a matter of policy, holds Hamas responsible for any hostile activity emanating from within the Gaza Strip – where Hamas is the de facto ruling authority.

Consequently, Israel is investing in a sophisticated fence that will run the length of its border with Egypt to help prevent cross-border attacks and, incidentally, the infiltration of illegal African migrants. Israel is also deploying more Iron Dome missile defense batteries to intercept rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai.

The latest round of fighting further illustrates the threat of global jihadi groups in the Sinai. These groups can be linked to like-minded groups in the Gaza Strip, which are nominally under the control of Hamas. These armed groups are exploiting both the weakness of the regime in Cairo and Israel’s reluctance to take military action against them in Egyptian territory – for fear of further eroding Egypt-Israel relations.

Increased lawlessness in the Sinai could trigger conflict between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip – a conflict that will undoubtedly attract Hamas.

If fighting were to erupt in the Sinai, a new area of instability could develop in an already highly unstable region – a new area ripe for exploitation by groups who thrive on destabilization in pursuit of their own self-interests. Chief among these groups is Hamas.

Published in the online Jerusalem Post Magazine today, 17 July:

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