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Bloody attack in Sinai causes closure of Gaza lifeline

Violence in the Sinai Peninsula is nothing new, but last night saw the bloodiest attack for some time. On Sunday evening around 8pm, masked gunmen attacked Egyptian soldiers as they broke their Ramadan fast. The attack, which took place at a checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel, left 16 people dead and injured a further seven.

The attackers commandeered two armoured vehicles which they drove towards the Israeli border. According to reports in the Arab media, one exploded on the Egyptian side of the border, while the other broke through the security fence and was hit by Israeli air force jets.

It appears that Islamist militants were responsible for the attack, with hard-line Salafists from Gaza joining forces with Islamists in Sinai. Hamas, which has tried to contain militant activity since the end of Israel's war against the people of Gaza three and a half years ago, was swift to disown the attack: "Hamas condemns this ugly crime which killed a number of Egyptian soldiers, and extends its deep condolences to the families of the victims and to the leadership and the people of Egypt."

The incident has already had a profound impact on Palestine: Egypt has closed the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. As the only crossing to Gaza not under direct Israeli control, it is a vital route to the outside world for residents, who are otherwise effectively trapped. From June 2010 to January 2011, an average of 19,000 people passed through it each month. The Rafah crossing has a troubled history, having been closed at various points under pressure from Israel, particularly since Hamas came to power in 2007.

Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Egyptian army and since last week Minister of Defence, has ordered the destruction of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. It is thought that the Gazan element in Sunday's attack got to Sinai through one of these tunnels, which are used to transport goods and people and break the Israeli-led siege. Given the harsh blockade on Gaza, these tunnels are a lifeline, and one of the few places for basic medicine and food to get in to the area. Goods are not allowed through the Rafah crossing.

The incident highlights increasing lawlessness in the impoverished mountain region of Sinai. In the last few years, it has become a centre for the trafficking of arms, drugs and people. Since Hosni Mubarak fell 18 months ago, all have increased. The Egyptian authorities have largely ignored the area, which is inhabited by Bedouin tribes, allowing discontent with central government to grow and militant groups to flourish.

With the Muslim Brotherhood running the government in Egypt, Palestine had hoped to forge a closer alliance with its neighbour. It looks as if Sunday's attack is already making this harder, and it is highly likely that Israel will exploit this tension.

Since Mubarak stepped down, Israel has allowed Egypt to send more troops to Sinai, which has been mostly demilitarised since the 1979 Camp David agreement. The shooting has renewed calls within Egypt for the treaty to be amended to allow more troops. Whether this happens depends on several factors, including Israel's co-operation and the Egyptian government's willingness to ask. President Mohamed Morsi said recently that he did not want to strengthen security ties or give an impression of co-operation, because both moves would go against Egyptian public opinion.

Relations between Egypt and Israel have always been ambivalent, characterised by mutual mistrust and, under Mubarak, a level of co-operation that frustrated the public. Given Israel's concerns about an Islamist government taking control, it will be pleased about any incident that weakens relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In condemning the killings quickly, Hamas has made it clear that it does not want to escalate tensions with Israel for now. But that may not be enough to preserve Gaza's vital relationship – and border crossings – with Egypt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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