The Sinai Peninsula is becoming a top security priority for Israel after more than three decades of quiet along its border with Egypt.
Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak almost a year ago, a pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel through Sinai has been bombed 10 times. Militants crossed the Egyptian border into Israel on Aug. 18, killing eight people. In December, a record 2,931 people, mostly African migrants, entered Israel illegally through the porous frontier.
The response: Israel is building a fence along the 240-kilometer (150-mile) border to block terrorists and migrants from crossing into the country’s southern reaches from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A stretch of road to the Israeli resort city of Eilat that runs along the border will be shifted about 750 meters eastward for security concerns.
“Egypt is suffering from acute instability and a weak central government,” said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “There is no real Egyptian control over Sinai, the best example of which is their inability to secure the gas pipeline.”
The Sinai has become a base for radical Palestinian groups, Islamic extremists with links with al-Qaeda and Bedouin criminal gangs, said Brom, a former general who stepped down from the army’s Strategic Planning Division in 1998.
“Sinai is a great concern for us,” Major-General Amir Eshel, current head of the planning branch, said Jan. 17 at a Jerusalem briefing, adding: “It’s seen as a safe haven” by many radical groups and “both countries understand this must be addressed.”
The Sinai bombings reduced Israel’s imports from Egypt to $179 million last year compared with $355 million in 2010. Almost all those imports are natural gas, said Shauli Katznelson, chief economist of the Israel Export Institute in Tel Aviv.
The 1.35-billion shekel ($360-million) fence, originally planned primarily to stop an increasing flow of illegal African workers, is Israel’s main response to the new threats from Sinai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Jan. 15 that work is being expedited on the barrier, which should be completed within nine or 10 months.
Israeli concerns over Egypt’s direction have heightened since Islamic parties won a majority of seats in Egypt’s lower house, which convened for the first time this week. Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party dominate the lower house of the assembly. Freedom and Justice said its bloc won 235 of the 498 elected seats, or 47 percent.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a formerly outlawed movement, has sent mixed signals on future relations with Israel, including on whether it would honor the 1979 Camp David agreement.
“The normal thing is for treaties forged by former regimes to be respected,” said Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. “This doesn’t mean that reviewing any treaty, be it with Israel or any other country, cannot happen so that mutual interests can be achieved.”
The Nour party, which follows an austere interpretation of Islam and holds the second largest share of seats, has also expressed reservations about the Camp David accords.
“We will abide by the treaty, but this does not mean accepting a number of clauses which the Egyptian people are clearly and unanimously against, such as exporting gas to Israel,” said Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar.
Nonetheless, Israel’s political and security establishment has “rushed to judgment” in imagining a “worst-case scenario” in Egypt, said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheba.
He predicted the Egyptian military will maintain its responsibility for security arrangements over Sinai as mandated by the Camp David accords. Even a parliament controlled by Islamic parties is more likely to focus on domestic issues and will continue to honor its treaty obligations, he said.
“Israel has to stop viewing the events in Egypt solely through a security lens,” Meital said. Leaders should emphasize diplomacy to engage the emerging Egyptian government, he said.
The Sinai, a rocky desert wilderness through which the Bible records Moses leading the Israelites to the Land of Israel, was a key battleground in the 1967 and 1973 Israeli-Arab wars. Israel returned it to Egypt under the 1979 peace treaty.
While a fence along the Egyptian border has been long discussed by Israeli policy makers, it remained low on the government’s priority list as long as the area was relatively quiet. In 2010, Netanyahu ordered work to begin in earnest in response to an increasing flow of African migrants.
At least 52,000 such migrants have entered the country through the Egypt border, according to Israeli government figures. Along with the border fence, the cabinet approved a plan last month that includes building a new holding facility in the country’s south to hold illegal migrants, stiffer fines for those who employ them and stepped-up efforts at repatriation.
The Defense Ministry decided to build the fence in 20-kilometer segments utilizing several different companies chosen in government tenders. Ten have already been awarded and another 10 are expected this year. Winners included Yehuda Fences Ltd., Elbit Systems Ltd.’s Elop unit and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.’s Elta subsidiary.
Nasdaq-traded Magal Security Systems Ltd., headed by Jacob Perry, former head of the Shin Bet security service, faulted the planning. Israel needs an “indicative” fence that activates an alarm on contact, said Perry, whose company has erected such barriers on Israel’s national borders, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Cameras and other electronic devices will be sufficient, the Defense Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
The exact type of fence being built is less important than other measures to secure the border, according to Major General Yom Tov Samia, former head of Israel’s Southern Command.
“Any kind of fence will not be efficient unless there are sufficient forces to patrol it, and of the right kind, including police and border police units that can carry out arrests of smugglers and infiltrators,” said Samia, chief executive officer of Israel Corp. unit IC Green Energy Ltd.