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Liberating Sinai is an overdue duty

January 24, 2014 at 10:28 am

There should be no other way to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Nakba in Palestine than to call for the liberation of Sinai because of the close connection between the two. Let me explain.

Although some may find it odd, this idea was inspired by Egypt’s Minister of Defence, General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi, in his speech at the conclusion of his inspection of an armoured unit last Saturday.

He noted that the development of the army and its combat capabilities is taking place at an unprecedented rate, which ensures that it will be able to face the challenges involved in protecting the country. Many noticed that Gen. Al-Sisi conveyed two messages in his speech. One confirmed the effort to improve the armed forces’ combat capabilities, the other that the army will not interfere in political affairs. Politicians, he said, must come to an understanding among themselves because calls for army involvement will be “playing with fire” and may hinder the country’s progress for 30 to 40 years.

I have called frequently for an end to the irresponsible insistence on army intervention and coups against the government. The army is undergoing a comprehensive re-construction process to regain its strength in order for it to become a professional body suited to a large country such as Egypt. Calls for political intervention may hinder this noble effort to shift the army from a policing role protecting the regime to a military role protecting the country.

This focus on the strength of the Egyptian army not only stems from national interests but also regional interests, especially after the destruction of the Iraqi army and the deterioration of the Syrians’. Arab interests dictate that Egypt’s military must be strong to maintain some degree of strategic balance with Israel.

The “MADAR” strategic report issued this year by the Palestinian Centre for Israeli Studies in Ramallah stated that Israel is still very concerned about the change of the situation in Egypt and is afraid that this change will affect the Camp David Accords; the treaty is still regarded by Tel Aviv as an irreplaceable strategic treasure. Israel also considers as an achievement the fact that 2012 went by peacefully without affecting its relations with Egypt. It celebrated this by making 2012 the “Settlement Spring” by quadrupling its illegal settlement projects over the 2011 level.

The report notes Israeli security evaluations which all agree that post-revolution Egypt will definitely change, which forces Israel state to prepare itself to deal with various scenarios. In principle, it considers withdrawing from the Camp David Accords a red line that no Israeli government could cross, but Israel has the necessary plans to face the worst case scenario.

The mortgaging of the Sinai Peninsula in favour of Israel at Camp David is one of the keys it holds on to and uses from time to time to put pressure on Egypt. It has been said in political circles that the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played the Sinai card in a phone call with the US President when Dr. Nabil Elaraby proposed opening the Rafah Crossing when he was the Foreign Minister after the revolution.

In this context, we must admit that the situation in Sinai is a key weakness which puts Egypt in a difficult position, leaving it with an abnormal situation that affects its sovereignty and threatens its national security. National dignity, for which so many people have sacrificed so much, is also at stake.

Despite the high regard that Camp David is held internationally, its clause on the position of Sinai which reduces Egyptian sovereignty over the territory has become a burden that is hard to ignore. Not only does the state have limited authority over a section of its own land, but it has also become apparent that the absence of this authority has created conditions which allow terrorist and other criminal cells to flourish and threaten the security and safety of Egypt.

It is no longer acceptable for Sinai to be divided with a weakened Egyptian military presence. It is shameful that 80,000 soldiers and 1,000 tanks crossed the Suez Canal in the 1973 war only for President Sadat to agree after their “victory” to withdraw all but 7,000 men and 30 tanks.

It is no longer acceptable for Egypt to be prohibited from establishing any airports or military installations in Sinai, and it is extremely questionable for the closest Israeli tank to be 3 kilometres from the Egyptian border, while the nearest Egyptian tank is 150 kilometres away from the same spot.

This is only part of what Mohammed Seif al-Dawla, an expert on the topic, points out in his report. He also notes the presence of foreign forces led by the United States in Sinai, and that Egypt cannot demand their withdrawal unless there is a consensus amongst the permanent members of the Security Council. These forces are associated with NATO and include 2,000 soldiers to monitor Egypt while only 50 civilians monitor the Israelis.

The details of this portfolio are many, but all indicate that the situation in Sinai is forced on Egypt and is a huge gap in national security. We can’t be silent about this any longer, and certainly not until after Egypt regains its political and military health.

It is ironic that public opinion has been swayed in the past by Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, who were successful in distorting Sinai’s image. They convinced many that the threat in Sinai was posed by the Palestinians, not the Israelis, and a rumour was spread that the Palestinians hoped to expand into Sinai and establish settlements there with the aim of adding it to the Gaza Strip. However, those who perpetuate this myth forget three main points:

1. President Gamal Abdel Nasser proposed in 1953, when he thought the best of the Americans, to ask for their help to relocate Palestinians in the north western area of Sinai. There is a report on this matter published by the Palestinian researcher Hassan Abul Namel, in a book published by the PLO Research Centre in 1978. This report was prepared by the Permanent Council for the development of national production in Egypt in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, printed on July 28th, 1955. The established Palestinian researcher Abdul Qadir Yassin, who lived through this phase, told me about its existence. He recalled that the idea was opposed strongly by the Palestinians at the time and that a delegation representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the communists and the independents came to meet with President Nasser and convinced him to withdraw the idea.

2. The Israelis occupied Sinai twice, once after the attacks in 1956 and again after the 1967 war, and spent 15 years there. During this time, the borders were open between Gaza and Sinai and it was very easy for Palestinians to cross into Sinai and live there, but they didn’t, despite the fact that there was nothing to stop them. They continued to remain dedicated to their country and historic ownership of their land.

3. The idea of settling the Palestinians in Sinai permanently originated in Israel and was never a part of any Palestinian project or plan. Researchers and academics know very well that Israeli politicians have always hoped to solve their problem with the Palestinians by moving them to any other place on Earth, to ethnically-cleanse them completely, and had even proposed some Latin American countries for this purpose. We should not put it past them to suggest Sinai as well, as it is the closest place geographically and could easily accommodate them.

Egypt’s weakness is the problem because it is unable to demand the amendment of the article in the Camp David Accords reducing its sovereignty over Sinai, despite the fact that the tension in Sinai is no longer a secret and the threats posed by these tensions on Egypt’s stability are not controversial or a subject of debate. I do not think that anyone can disagree that the weakness of Egypt has led to a weakening of the entire Arab world and the weakening of the Palestinian cause. It is clear that it is being exploited to force the Arabs to make free concessions to Israel, the most recent of which was the proposal of land swaps with Israel to give legitimacy to its settlements and change the map of the region in its favour.

Post-revolution Egypt, which still hasn’t settled, has not changed any rules set by the Mubarak regime in its relations with the Palestinians in general, and Gaza in particular. Yes, the atmosphere has changed relatively-speaking, but the rules haven’t. This is most evident in the Rafah Crossing, still restricted largely to humanitarian cases only, which is what Israel wants; it is not a normal international or commercial crossing, like most borders around the world.

All of this can be dealt with in two ways; first, by developing Egypt’s political and military strength, about which Al-Sisi’s words are important. Secondly, by enabling the country’s decision-makers, the president in particular, to put the country’s wider interests first and foremost and challenge the status quo in Sinai with a view to regaining full Egyptian sovereignty over the region. All of this will go hand in hand with a rejection of the idea of abandoning the people of Palestine; instead, Egypt will be able to play a full role in defending their legitimate rights.

The author is an Egyptian writer. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on Al Jazeera net on 14 May 2013

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