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If you are seeking to understand what motivates the jihadists who have swarmed into the Sinai Peninsula in recent months, their own words are the best guide available.
“Every outing with rockets is a life-and-death adventure. It is one we love,” a terrorist who belongs to a Palestinian Islamist faction told Reuters last week. “If we live we will be back to fire more, and if we die we go to heaven as martyrs.”
If there’s one thing that can be said for jihadists, it’s that they are honest. In Sinai, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and all the other territories where the Islamists have emerged as a destabilizing influence, they are frank about their devotion to continuing the conflict against western encroachment—of which Israel’s existence is a particularly hated example—and they do not fear death or capture in the process.
That devotion was on graphic display in early August, when radical Islamists stormed an Egyptian army base in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 16 soldiers. Some of the terrorists then made off with an army vehicle they drove into Israeli territory, where they were thwarted by the IDF near the Kerem Shalom crossing.
It was an episode that highlighted the strategic vulnerability of this vast peninsula, whose demilitarized status was a cornerstone of the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Under those accords, Israel transferred the Sinai, which it captured following the 1967 war, back to Egyptian sovereignty.
Especially in the last years of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, lawlessness reigned in Sinai. After Israel and Egypt jointly imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2006, following the Hamas seizure of power in the small sliver of land bordering Israel's south-western coast, smugglers and terrorists dug underground tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, using them to transport a range of goods from building materials to goats to weapons.
When Mubarak’s regime collapsed amidst a surge in support for Egypt’s Islamist groups, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, which maintains close ties with Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, there was widespread concern that Sinai might become a new front in the war upon Israel. Israeli radars spotted Palestinians transporting rockets and launchers into Sinai, for the purpose of testing and improving their range and accuracy of these weapons, which have terrorized Israelis living in southern towns like Sderot for a decade.
However, in the aftermath of the attack on the Egyptian base, there appears to be a general determination to maintain order in the peninsula.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent victory in the Egyptian elections, Israel has temporarily suspended its objection to Egyptian troop deployments in Sinai, applauding an offensive by the Egyptian army against the Islamists. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak secured the agreement of the security cabinet to allow the Egyptians to send five attack helicopters into Sinai. Interviewed by Israel Radio, Barak went out of his way to praise the Egyptian response, saying that Cairo had acted “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall.”
Even the Palestinian Authority has joined the chorus of demands for tightened security in Sinai. Over the weekend, the PA stressed that some of the terrorists involved in the attack on the army base had entered Egypt from Gaza, before urging the Egyptians to tighten their blockade by destroying the tunnels from Sinai.
Clearly, the PA sees a window of opportunity to gain the upper hand in its bitter conflict with Hamas. And Hamas reacted with anger, calling the PA”s demand "immoral and irresponsible.”
For western nations seeking to maintain calm in the region following the momentous political changes of the past two years, the hope is that shared security interests between Egypt’s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the PA, and Israel will check the ambitions of more radical forces seeking to use the Sinai as a launching pad. Echoing the current U.S. administration’s position that the Brotherhood should be diplomatically engaged, the New York Times posited that Egypt and Israel might be compelled to work together “to confront extremism and improve border security.”
Much attention has also been paid to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s decision to fire key officials in the wake of the attack on the army base. The group included Egypt’s influential intelligence chief, General Murad Muwafi. Yet the fact that Muwafi had very publicly argued for an assault to counter the Islamists in Sinai before the attack on the base occurred suggests that political considerations, and not just security ones, were a factor in his firing. That sense was further amplified by Morsi’s later decision to fire the chief of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, along with other top generals, in a dramatic bid to prove that the president's office, and not Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf,) is the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt.
Critically, the events of the last two weeks should not blind us to the Muslim Brotherhood’s history of inflammatory statements against Israel. Nor should we forget that Morsi and his colleagues have repeatedly intimated that they want to renegotiate the terms of the 1979 treaty; given their vow to never meet with Israeli officials, they could even tear it up unilaterally. Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, said last week that the “state respects international accords but at the same time serves the interest of the nation and Egyptian citizens,” which suggests that all options are open.
Moreover, before we get too excited about the prospect of a new era in security cooperation, recall what the Muslim Brotherhood stated after the attack on the Sinai base: “This crime can be attributed to the Mossad, which has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception, and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.” (Remember what Arab conspiracy-mongers said about Jews in the twin towers right after the 9/11 atrocities?)
That snippet of Islamist lunacy came only a few days after Egypt denied that Morsi had sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a letter saying, “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East Peace Process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.” For its part, Israel insisted that the letter was genuine.
What the Sinai flashpoint shows, then, is a common acknowledgement that the status quo should be maintained. In other words, no one wants a full-scale war—at least, not for the time being. The proper conclusion to draw is not that Muslim Brotherhood has become a trustworthy international citizen, but rather that Israel must retain its qualitative military edge if a further deterioration in the area is to be avoided. Knowing that the IDF cannot be defeated is, for now, the safest guarantee of peace.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.