Sinai: A New Front

(Washington Institute for Near East Policy) Ehud Yaari - The Sinai Peninsula has emerged as a new hotspot with an expanding terrorist infrastructure. Measures are needed to prevent the total collapse of security in the peninsula and the rise of an armed, runaway Bedouin statelet. The territory's Bedouin residents, who now number over 300,000, constitute 70% of the total population, the rest being Palestinians (10%), immigrants from across the Suez Canal in Egypt (10%), and descendants of Bosnian, Turkish, and other settlers from the Ottoman period, mainly in al-Arish (10%). Because Egyptian authorities have been hesitant in asserting control over the peninsula, Hamas has come to perceive the area as a sphere of influence, reaching out to the local population. Recently, a growing number of terrorist networks have expanded their activities throughout much of Sinai. These networks represent old smuggling gangs partly converted to terrorism, newly formed Bedouin factions adhering to Salafi jihadist doctrines, and affiliates of Palestinian organizations in Gaza. Egyptian authorities have also uncovered Hizbullah penetration of Sinai. After Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza and subsequent removal of troops from the Sinai-Gaza border - as Bedouin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it - "a fireball started rolling into the peninsula." Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk. Sympathy and support for the Palestinian battle against Israel grew. Today, a significant number of Hamas military operatives are permanently stationed in Sinai, serving as recruiters, couriers, and propagators of the Hamas platform. A solid network of the group's contact men, safe houses, and armories covers much of the peninsula. Hamas has also established a clandestine operational office in Cairo, which the Egyptian authorities choose to ignore. The combination of Palestinian terrorist networks, armed Salafi jihadist Bedouin, and extensive smuggling infrastructure and activities has turned the peninsula into a safe haven for terrorists with heavy, advanced arms and wide freedom of action. In other words, it has become a huge arms depot with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of operatives bent on fighting for their causes. The writer, an international fellow of The Washington Institute, is a Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television.

2012-01-12 00:00:00

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