Al-Qaeda in Sinai

The land-for-peace paradigm looks weaker than ever.

It started early this week when a “senior Egyptian security official” told the Egyptian-based Al-Hayyat TV channel that over 400 Al-Qaeda members had made their way into the Sinai Peninsula. They were said to be composed of Palestinians, Bedouins, and foreign Arabs, and Egyptian security forces were said to be pursuing them since they were “planning to carry out terror attacks in Egypt.”

The official told Al-Hayyat that they had already carried out “attacks against [Egyptian] security forces in the Sinai city of El Arish.”

The report seemed to gain credence on Monday when Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Egypt is having a hard time realizing its sovereignty in Sinai. International terror organizations are stirring in Sinai and their presence is increasing due to Sinai’s connection to Gaza.”

Although Netanyahu left it vague, that “due to” can work both ways: terrorists in Sinai, particularly if intent on attacking Israel, can make their way into Gaza, and terrorists in Gaza—especially now that Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing—can make their way into Sinai.

Although it may have gotten a significant boost this week, the problem of Al-Qaeda and other global jihadist forces in Sinai is not new. Last February 5, a gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan was blown up in northern Sinai, and it was blown up again on April 27. The attacks are attributed to local Bedouins, global jihadists, or a collaboration between the two.

Last August, five rockets were fired from Sinai at the Israeli resort town of Eilat; one, the only one to cause damage, instead hit the adjacent Jordanian town of Aqaba, killing one and wounding five. Global jihadists were believed to be behind it. Another rocket, also probably fired from Sinai, had hit Aqaba in April without causing casualties.

Severe bombing attacks have also struck Egyptian targets in Sinai: in 2006, one in Dahab that killed at least 23; in 2005, one in Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 88; and a double bombing at the Taba and Ras al-Shitan resorts in 2004 that took at least 34 lives.

The mounting terror threat from Sinai puts Israel in a difficult dilemma. Under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Israel withdrew from Sinai while Egypt agreed to leave it demilitarized, deploying only police and border guards there. But after the first gas-pipeline bombing last February 5, Israel—for the first time since the peace treaty’s signing—allowed Egypt to move military forces into the peninsula.

Though the two Egyptian battalions were supposed to put a lid on the growing anarchy, just days later, Israel turned down an Egyptian request to deploy additional forces, fearing “a complete breakdown of the peace treaty with Cairo.”

Upholding the peace treaty, then, means a growing presence for Al-Qaeda and other global terror in Sinai, without adequate Egyptian—or any other—forces to counter it. Derogating from the treaty means allowing Egypt—in the post-Mubarak era that has seen rising extremism there—back into the peninsula, which borders Gaza to the north and Israel itself to the south, and from which Egypt attacked Israel in 1948 and 1967.

Above all, the situation underlines the fragility of the peace-process paradigm, which has become axiomatic in international diplomacy and assumes that Israel can gain peace in return for territorial concessions.

As long as the Mubarak government—which, while violating almost all the other terms of the peace treaty, never militarily attacked Israel—ruled Egypt, it could be claimed that the paradigm was at least succeeding in the Egyptian case. Today, with Sinai becoming a terror haven that threatens both Egypt and Israel, and with Israel rightly judging that letting Egyptian forces enter it is even more dangerous, the days—1967 to 1979—when Israeli forces controlled Sinai can only be regarded with nostalgia.