Islamist Terrorists Threaten Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula, located between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aqaba, an area of about 23,000 square miles, is the site of both historically biblical significance and of constant warfare. Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the area the Israelites crossed on their way to the Promised Land. Near Mount Sinai is the Monastery of the Transfiguration or St. Catherine's Monastery, a World Heritage Site with an extraordinary collection of mosaics, early icons, and liturgical objects, which is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world.

Sinai has also been the site of many conflicts over the centuries. After four hundred years of rule by the Ottoman Empire the administration of Sinai was transferred to the Egyptian government, which had been largely controlled by Britain since 1882. Britain imposed the border of Sinai from Rafah to Taba, which is still recognized as the eastern border of Egypt. From Sinai the Egyptian forces in May 1948 invaded the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine to attack the new State of Israel. After the 1948-49 war Egypt controlled both Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, an unprovoked act that led to a temporary alliance of Britain, France, and Israel to challenge it. During the brief 1956 war Israeli troops entered Sinai, and occupied most of it in a few days.

Under pressure from the Eisenhower Administration, Israel withdrew from the area. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was set up to prevent any military occupation of Sinai. But in 1967, Nasser prohibited Israeli shipping using Egyptian territorial waters, including Suez, and on May 16, 1967 ordered UNEF to withdraw from Sinai, an order without the required UN Security Council approval. Israel responded in the Six Day War in June 1967 during which its forces captured the whole of Sinai. Israel remained in control of the area until the decisions at the Camp David Accords on September 17, 1978 and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of March 26, 1979, according to which Israel agreed to withdrew from the whole area, and dismantle all its settlements, including Yamit.

Russia threatened to veto the creation of an UN peacekeeping force to monitor the situation. But negotiations between Egypt, Israel, and the United States led on August 3, 1981 to a decision to establish the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) outside the framework of the United Nations to enforce the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Since 1982 its responsibilities include operating checkpoints and observation posts, reconnaissance patrols, and ensuring freedom of marine navigation in the Strait of Tiran, and access to the Gulf of Aqaba.
The MFO is located in Zone C, one of the four zones into which Sinai is divided, and which is about a quarter of the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Only the MFO and the Egyptian civilian police are allowed in this Zone C which has two main installations, one at El Gorah, and the other near Sharm el Sheikh, and another 30 small ones.
The MFO is now a force, with headquarters in Rome, in which 1600 personnel drawn from 13 countries participate. The U.S. accounts for about 700, a number which the Pentagon wishes to reduce. The Observer contingent is composed of civilians seconded to the peacekeeping force.

For some years while Hosni Mubarak was President of Egypt, Sinai remained relatively quiet, with the MFO for three decades helping to maintain a durable state of peace. However, since his departure and the coming to power of President Mohammed Morsi on June 30, 2012, the area has become increasingly lawless and the state of security has deteriorated. The authorities in Sinai, the Egyptian military and police and the MFO, have been increasingly confronted by troubling actions and threats by Islamist and other terrorist groups, and by Bedouin activists.

Sinai must now be recognized as an area with a security vacuum. Bedouins have been linked to smuggling of arms, drugs, and human trafficking. They claim they have been mistreated by Egyptian security forces who disrespect them. Some of them compare this to their more favorable treatment while Israel controlled the area, between 1967 and 1982, because Israel had been concerned to study their culture, tribes, law, and customs.
Sinai has witnessed the rise of terrorist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda. In June 2009 terrorists killed an Egyptian police officer who was a member of the Egyptian counterterrorism department in the security agency. In August 2011 the Popular Resistance Committees (in essence Palestinian terrorists) launched a raid into Israel from its base in Sinai killing eight people. Palestinians from Gaza, together with Bedouins, have formed the Mujahedeen Consultative Council, an al-Qaeda inspired group, to attack Israel.

On August 5, 2012 armed jihadists, trained in Gaza, took control of an Egyptian police station in north Sinai, murdering 16 people and driving off an armed personnel carrier which they said was to fight against Israel. On May 16, 2013 a sophisticated attack by a Bedouin terrorist group, acting with the help of an extreme Islamic group affiliated with al-Qaeda, kidnapped seven policemen near the town of El-Arish. The Bedouins had demanded the release of prisoners who had been sentenced to death for murdering a police officer. President Morsi has called this a criminal act.

Life has been made difficult for Egyptian authorities for Israel, and for the MFO which because of the danger has been forced to cancel some of its patrols. In a recent report, the U.S. State Department has commented on the difficulty the Egyptian National Security Sector has in combating terrorist threats and concluding that it has had few successes in the Sinai Peninsula. Northern Sinai, especially the area of Rafah, is the route for smuggling people, cash, arms and explosives into Gaza, and is a base for Palestinian violent extremists. The Rafah border crossing into Gaza has been attacked by extremists over 30 times. Egypt has been unable to control the use by terrorists of the tunnels into Gaza.

One consequence of the increasing jihadist activity and the inability of Egyptians to control it is that Israel is now building a security fence along a 150 mile border with Egypt. Two conclusions follow from the breakdown in law and order in Sinai. The first is that cooperation between Israel and Egypt is recognized as essential. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appreciate that Israel is more welcome than al-Qaeda in the area, and that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty must be maintained. The other is that the international community should recognize the value of the Multinational Force and even strengthen its operation in Sinai.