Egyptian air force attacks in Sinai for first time since 1973
August 2012 began violently in the Sinai Peninsula. Glowing leftovers from the violence that took place last February erupted into full flames, causing unprecedented attacks from Israel and Egypt. On August 5, Global Jihad militants attacked an Egyptian outpost near Gaza, killed 16 Egyptians, and stole several vehicles. One of the stolen Fahd Armored Personnel Carriers was hit in the subsequent Israeli air strike. A second APC exploded before it could enter Israeli territory, at the Kerem Shalom Border Terminal, which connects Israel, Gaza and Egypt; the IDF released an aerial video of the incident. On August 8, Egypt responded with air strikes close to the border with Israel, killing over twenty suspected Islamic militants, as reported by state news agency Ahram. This is the first time the Egyptian air force attacks in Sinai since 1973. The peace agreement between the countries forces Egypt to coordinate with Israel military moves in Sinai. The ongoing insurrection in Sinai is gathering momentum to such an extent that Egypt’s new Islamist government and the Zionists are cooperating in ways they never thought possible. Winds of change enliven slow-burning coals.
Sinai is burning. In the early hours of February 5, 2012, an explosion hit the gas pipeline running from Egypt to Israel west of the Mediterranean resort town of al-Arish. Consequently, the supply of Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan was cut. In the last year, this pipeline was attacked twelve times and experienced several cuts. The recurrence of the event at the amazing average rate of once a month is not surprising. Due to the peace agreement with Israel, the Egyptian army cannot enter the area and the police are in charge of security. However, following Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, police presence thinned out across Egypt. This abandonment of the Sinai Peninsula by the Egyptians combines with other facts into a perfect formula for the creation of the recent violence. First, the Bedouins living in the area resent their being marginalized within Egypt. Second, the gas is supplied to Israel at a large discount in a twenty-year long contract signed by Mubarak’s government, while the gas price to Jordan was doubled last October. Additional reasons for violence exist also on the other side of the border.
Derived from an Arabic word for semi-arid desert, “Bedouin” is a term designating members of a large number of Arab tribes. Egypt features a 400,000 Bedouin population, mainly in the Sinai Peninsula; while Israel has 200,000 Bedouin citizens living in the Negev Desert and a smaller number in the Galilee. In Sinai, they kept mainly loyal to their traditional ways, while in Israel the situation was different. Over 60% of Israel is within the Negev Desert; wandering Bedouins inhabited the area for thousands of years, their ancestors were traders along the romantic Silk Road. Since the mid-19th century there has been a slow process of settling down among them. In the 1950s, the Israeli army began limiting the Bedouins freedom, attempting to concentrate them in certain areas. Since the 1970s, the Israeli Administration began creating Bedouin towns, Rahat being the largest one. Nowadays there are roughly fifty Bedouin settlements in the Negev with a total of some two hundred thousand inhabitants, roughly half of them in recognized towns and villages.
Recognized towns and villages get infrastructure and services from the state, while unrecognized settlements get nothing. In exchange for recognition, the Israeli Administration often asks for relocation and for proper verification of ownership. Now, Israel’s law system is incomplete. Where laws do not exist, Israeli courts often refer to British Mandate and Ottoman Empire laws. In this case, Israel decided to work according to the Ottoman Empire law here, demanding from the Bedouins Ottoman “Kushan” ownership papers. Not one Bedouin has such documents. The result is violent frictions each time the Israeli Administration attempts to regularize (a polite way of referring to “state-theft”) the situation of a given tribe. This is to the extent that a “Bedouin Intifada” is not a new concept; in August 2010 violence erupted between Bedouins and the Israeli police. The latter failed to enter a Bedouin settlement after discovering that the Bedouins were better armed than them.
The Bedouins’ situation in Israel is complex. They are citizens, and as such they may volunteer for service in the IDF (though most Jewish citizens are forced to enroll-I use here the definitions used by the Israeli Ministry of Interior). Many Bedouins volunteer for the IDF, but—unlike Druze citizens—they are restricted almost completely to service within one unit. It is called the Desert Rangers Battalion (“Gdud Siur Midbari” in Hebrew), which is part of the Givati Infantry Brigade. Often called the “Minorities Unit,” it includes also Circassian and even a few Palestinian soldiers. All of them must volunteer to the IDF. These soldiers serve mainly as trackers and pathfinders, and often are attached ad hoc to other military units while those attempt to move across the desert. The main point is that they are heavily monitored and kept away from strategic units and issues. They are not trusted. Their skills serve them also outside the army, where they are known for being able to cross the well-defended, fenced border between Israel and Egypt at will. This is when the two stories combine.
Interlude: Sinai? Who Cares!
Often, historical events are sanitized to fit actual political sensibilities. The original Santa Claus originated in Turkey, before it became a Muslim state. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose provides astonishing views into Christian monasteries and libraries. Most people will place such organizations in Europe; yet, the world’s second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts is in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, in southern Sinai. Only the Vatican collection surpasses it.
This is a reminder than the Sinai Peninsula is a vastly underdeveloped area with an extraordinary potential. Beyond its culture, it offers also astonishing coasts, which had been only partially developed. This is even before mentioning the area still has tremendous importance in the transport of oil and gas. Overall, it may well support an independent state.
Muslim Egypt, Zionist Israel and…
The recent violence looks strange. How did the Global Jihad militants arrive at their targets? They couldn’t move along paved roads; Egyptian police would have detained them. The “global” part of the name should be read “foreigners.” It means they don’t know the desert. Moving there safely demands more than a compass and a Lonely Planet guidebook. How did the oil pipes been targeted with such regularity and precision? Ever since the peak days of the Silk Road, Bedouins use their skills as pathfinders and trackers to control the routes connecting the Negev Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, as well as related pathways. The low-key Bedouin Intifada within Israel is beginning to show its muscles, when a de facto Bedouin State is helping unexpected allies and setting the basis for a future open rebellion.
The situation is so serious than two unprecedented events took place since the revolt against Mubarak begun. The first was the entrance to Sinai of at least an entire brigade of the Egyptian army. The peace agreement between the countries allows only Egyptian police forces to patrol the peninsula. Yet, in fear of the developing rebellion, Netanyahu allowed Egypt to use its army in Sinai. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Then, in the last days, Israel allowed Egypt to make the abovementioned air attack nest to its border. On June 2012, Mohamed Morsi was declared Egypt’s first Islamist president in the freest elections in the country’s history. He is the first president openly identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that was defined illegal by the military-run regime. He has good relations with Iran and made several announcements showing its intentions to shift Egypt’s alliances in the area. Yet, shortly afterwards, he found himself dealing with Israel on friendly terms, and even got a permission to use Egypt’s air force near the Israeli border. This is how critic the situation in Sinai is turning.
Reality is changing fast in the Middle East. There are credible signs that Israel may begin an indirect war with Iran. If Netanyahu is badly pressed, then he may decide to attack directly. A war between Israel and Syria is also probable. In either case, when that day comes, Bedouins may use their skills as pathfinders and trackers, and their control of the routes connecting the Negev Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, to cross-over and create a new Bedouin State with their brothers on the Egyptian side. There would be nobody capable of stopping the event. A well-known Bedouin saying is “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers.” It reflects very well their hierarchy of loyalties. If the opportunity would arise, there is little doubt it would be seized. A flying camel passing through illusions of modern power; an ancient Silk Road reasserting its birth rights.