Militants attacked an Egyptian military unit stationed at the border with Israel, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers. The attack has drawn condemnation from Cairo, Tel Aviv and Gaza. But while all agree that the attack undermines security in the region, the strategic importance of the Sinai Peninsula means that actually securing it is much more controversial.
Eight Islamist militants attacked an Egyptian military border checkpoint at dusk Aug. 5, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers as they were breaking their Ramadan fast. The militants then commandeered two Egyptian military vehicles and broke through the checkpoint into Israel near the town of Kerem Shalom. Israeli forces pursued the vehicles and neutralized them within about 15 minutes, preventing any significant damage in Israel.
Violence in the Sinai has increased dramatically since Mubarak’s departure from power early last year. Attacks on gas pipelines have dramatically decreased Israel’s access to energy from the Sinai and militants have conducted a number of attacks against Israel from the Sinai. The Aug. 5 attack resembles an attack about a year ago when militants from Gaza infiltrated Israel via the Sinai and killed eight Israelis near the town of Eilat.
The Aug. 5 attack was not as successful at targeting Israelis as the one a year ago. Tactically, yesterday’s attack was much too overt to pose a realistic threat to Israeli civilians. Israel has significantly increased its security presence and infrastructure along the border with Egypt in response to the steady increase in violence and was well equipped to deal with the brazen attack from Egypt.
But militants don’t necessarily need to incur Israeli casualties in order to be successful. As attacks have increased, Israel has more reason to distrust Egypt’s ability to secure the Sinai. Egypt’s government, in turn, has indirectly blamed Hamas by closing the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Egypt and Israel are putting pressure on Hamas for supporting the transnational jihadists who have sanctuary in the Sinai Peninsula.
All of these conflicts put into question the strategic security of the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai is a critical buffer space that straddles the Arab-Israeli divide. This harsh and rugged terrain does not make for a particularly attractive or economically useful territory to fight over. Israel allowed Egypt to increase its military presence in the Sinai last year, but if conflict in the Sinai brings the adversaries uncomfortably close, the neutrality of the space quickly erodes. As a result, the likelihood of conflict increases. If Egypt is not able to secure the Sinai, then Israel would face more pressure to guarantee its own security there.
Militants in the region opposed to Israel are eager to destabilize the neutrality and are using violence to do so. They see the current, more volatile political environment in Egypt right now as a prime opportunity to capitalize on their attacks. The deterioration in Egypt and Hamas' ability to maintain security will translate into more tensions on all sides and more opportunities for the militants to conduct attacks.