In­side Si­nai, where al Qaeda roam free

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page -

FOR OVER a hun­dred miles be­tween the heav­ily guarded Suez Canal Bridge and the main town in north­ern Si­nai, El Ar­ish, the road is de­serted at night. No-one is stop­ping cars or check­ing doc­u­ments at the road­blocks and the guard posts are empty.

Only on the fi­nal ap­proach to El Ar­ish can the first signs of a mil­i­tary build-up be seen. Two Soviet-era ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers are po­si­tioned on ei­ther side of the road; around them stand a squad of ner­vous­look­ing con­scripts, in full bat­tle-gear and pro­tected by rows of sand-bags.

They peer at the ve­hi­cles that slow down as they pass but nei­ther do they, or any other se­cu­rity per­son­nel, ask for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. From the roof of a nearby build­ing, a ma­chine-gun­ner pro­vides ad­di­tional se­cu­rity.

Sim­i­lar out­posts have sprung up since early last week in and around El Ar­ish and ev­ery cou­ple of miles, all the way to the bor­der with the Gaza Strip at Rafah.

This is just the lat­est re­in­force­ment of se­cu­rity forces in Si­nai over the past 15 months. Since the fall of Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak’s regime early last year, Is­rael has qui­etly al­lowed the Egyp­tian army to trans­fer seven bat­tal­ions into the re­gion near the bor­der, above the force-level al­lowed in eastern Si­nai by the se­cu­rity pro­to­cols of the Camp David peace ac­cords.

Two weeks ago, another op­er­a­tion was an­nounced to re­turn se­cu­rity to the chaotic north-eastern cor­ner of the penin­sula after the nat­u­ral gas pipe­lines to Is­rael and Jor­dan, cru­cial for Egypt’s frag­ile econ­omy, were sab­o­taged for the 14th time in as many months.

The pipe­line ex­plo­sions have oc­curred along­side re­peated at­tacks by Be­douin tribes­men — who have joined forces with Is­lamist ter­ror­ists aligned with al-qaeda — on mil­i­tary out­posts and po­lice sta­tions in the re­gion. They have also linked up with Is­lamic Ji­had in the Gaza Strip and have tried to carry out at­tacks against Is­rael, in­clud­ing the one near Ei­lat last Au­gust in which eight Is­raelis were killed, and a rocket at­tack on Ei­lat two weeks ago in which no-one was hurt.

So far, the Egyp­tian re­in­force­ments have failed to re-es­tab­lish sta­bil­ity in north­ern Si­nai and the forces sta­tioned there last week did not seem about to do so. They were mainly con­cerned with de­fend­ing them­selves and their po­si­tions. The forces re­mained static in their posts and did not em­bark on pa­trols. Their fears were jus­ti­fied last Sun­day when, at an out­post by the El Ar­ish air­field, two sol­diers were killed and two more wounded in what ap­pears to have been another at­tack by Be­douin smug­glers or mem­bers of the Is­lamist un­der­ground.

“It’s clear this is just for show,” said Mo­hammed Beticha, a floor-layer in Rafah, “they don’t dare to fight the Be­douin or even ven­ture into the hills.” In clear view of the sol­diers, Be­douin touts con­tin­ued ply­ing their trade, one of them ap­proach­ing vis­i­tors to the town of­fer­ing them routes across the bor­der, “over­ground and un­der­ground.” De­spite all the joint ef­forts of Is­rael, Egypt and the US army ad­vis­ers who were sent to the re­gion two years ago, the smug­gling in tun­nels be­neath Rafah con­tin­ues apace.

The Be­douin have made it clear to the Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties that any at­tempt to cur­tail their busi­ness will be met with vi­o­lence and sab­o­tage.

“Is­rael has no choice but to agree to the Egyp­tian re­quests,” said a se­nior Is­raeli se­cu­rity of­fi­cial. “We have an in­ter­est, of course, in them re­build­ing se­cu­rity on the bor­der but the fact is that they are not do­ing it. Mean­while, the Egyp­tian army is achiev­ing one of its strate­gic goals and re­build­ing bases near Is­rael.”

PHOTO: AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

An Egyp­tian army out­post near El Ar­ish

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