A militant attack on an Egyptian border post in the Sinai on Sunday left at least sixteen dead and sparked major concern in Israel where officials have expressed exasperation about the lack of security in the peninsula since the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak early last year.
The perpetrators, dressed in traditional bedouin drab, reportedly attacked Egyptian border guards as they stopped work at sunset to break the Ramadan fast. The militants then managed to hijack armored vehicles and tried to infiltrate Israel. They breached the border before Israeli forces stopped them, killing eight.
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi consulted with army leaders on Monday to prepare a response. “Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly,” he said. “The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.” Helicopter gunships were deployed to comb the area.
Yoav Mordechai, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, lamented on army radio that the Sinai had “become a hothouse for world terrorism because of the weak control exercised” by the Egyptian government.
Speaking to the Knesset‘s foreign affairs and defense committee, defense minister Ehud Barak described the attack as a “wake up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands.” He claimed that the attackers were linked to a jihadist group.
An Egyptian official told the Al-Ahram newspaper that authorities suspect the militants entered Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory, has denied involvement and condemned the incident.
Daniel R. DePetris wrote for the Atlantic Sentinel last year that the bedouin tribesmen who roam the Sinai “have resisted the writ of the Egyptian government ever since the nation state concept was first introduced.”
State security, the Egyptian military and Egypt’s intelligence corps are hated in this neck of the woods. During the Mubarak era, hundreds of tribesmen were rounded up by Egyptian police officers and detained without charge and held without trial.
Sinai residents are among the poorest in Egypt, with the province of North Sinai the most economically destitute.
The peninsula is demilitarized as a condition of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Jewish state consented to Egypt sending in troops last year to impose order. With the exception of recent military offensives however, there has been no police presence in the region. Analysts from the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat warned in May that the security vacuum was “rapidly being filled by Islamist militant groups.”
Since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February of last year, there have been more than a dozen attacks on the pipeline that carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan. Tourism in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh has faltered as a result of the violence in the area and the uncertain political future of Egypt altogether.
Israel could ultimately decide to deploy troops to the area to quell the unrest but that would “further strain the Egyptian-Israeli relationship,” according to Wikistrat, “and risk raising more anti-Israel sentiment in the Egyptian public.”