The _Jerusalem Post_’s highly credible military correspondent Yaakov Katz reports this week that Hamas has set up bases and rocket-production facilities in Sinai so as to prevent Israel from bombing them from the air. Israel still has a peace treaty with Egypt—still nominally sovereign over Sinai—and is anxious to preserve a modicum of decent relations even as Egypt slides toward Islamism. An air force raid on Egyptian territory would, of course, not be the best way to do that.
Especially since the Mubarak government fell last February, Sinai has descended into anarchy—a haven for global-jihad terror groups and Bedouin smuggling gangs. Israel has tried to help the post-Mubarak regime get a handle on things by bending the terms of the peace treaty and allowing Egyptian battalions into Sinai to try and clean up the mess. By all accounts—whether out of lack of ability or will—they’ve had little success.
But for Gaza-based Hamas to set up military facilities in Sinai is an ominous turn for the even-worse. It means either that Cairo’s loss of control of the peninsula is so complete that it couldn’t prevent Hamas’s move; or, more sinister yet, that it approves of it.
That would constitute little less than a passive act of war against Israel even before the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have taken over Egypt.
In a follow-up, Katz reports that an Egyptian official told the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that there was no truth to the original report, saying: “No one can ever bring in military tools or erect missile bases in Sinai. Egypt would not allow such a breach to its sovereignty.” Katz, however, attributes the official’s words to “an effort to protect [the Hamas facilities] from Israeli air strikes.”
All this has happened against the backdrop of yet another exchange of hostilities between Israel and terror groups in Gaza. It started on Thursday when the Israeli air force assassinated a terror leader who—while based in Gaza—was planning another attack into Israel from Sinai (there already was one in August, which killed eight Israelis). Since then a few dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, with Israel striking back at Hamas targets. Although this latest round seems to have died down, the situation remains tense and volatile.
As Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak told the World Policy Conference in Vienna on Sunday, in 2005 Israel
evacuated the Gaza Strip and took out every last soldier and civilian, gave instructions to tear down all buildings, even synagogues, so as not to supply any excuse to the Palestinians. And what happened? Hamas fired over 10,000 rockets at Israel.
And with that, he could have added, the idea of unilateral withdrawals—then also seen by some as a way to end rule over Palestinians in the West Bank—lost its allure in the Israeli discourse. But the deterioration in Sinai—and Egypt itself—threatens the more fundamental idea of an egress from Middle Eastern instability and belligerence via peace treaties with Israel’s neighbors, of which the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian treaty is still the paradigmatic case.
Counterbalancing the war clouds to Israel’s south is Egypt’s near-catastrophic economic situation, which—it’s hoped—could keep even an explicitly Islamist Egypt dependent on Western aid, or at least unable to finance hostilities.
What is clear, though, is that the neighborhood Israel sees as 2012 approaches is no longer the one it saw even a year ago. True, to the north, longtime foes Syria and—as a result—Hizbullah are in trouble. In that sphere, upheaval could work to Israel’s benefit. Instability, though, remains the keynote of the region, giving the lie to visions of secure, lasting peace. Those urging increases in the defense budget have been winning the argument.
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