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Will Israel return to Sinai?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talks with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi [file photo]
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi [file photo]

The recent Israeli military operations limited to Sinai have become a typical occurrence in the media, although the Egyptian media is still trying to train the Egyptian minds to accept such news as if it were normal by presenting it in a context combining denial and confirmation, as well as verification and doubt.

The Israeli army’s attacks actually go beyond merely responding to actual or alleged rocket attacks mounted against Israel from Sinai and aim to achieve long-term goals. Will Tel Aviv restore its relationship with Sinai, taking advantage of the current Egyptian political leadership’s sympathy for Israel’s security requirements and its willingness to surrender Sinai, or part of it, as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

The strategic depth

 The state structure in Israel suffers from two contradictory problems. First, a weak strategic depth, and second, an inability to bear the cost of expanding behind the borders, despite having the military capabilities, and the occupying Jewish state is trying to deal with these two problems via various means.

The issue of the strategic depth stems from the fact that the area on which the Israeli occupation state is established is the majority of historic Palestine (territories occupied in 1948 and the West Bank, internationally classified as occupied), which only amounts to nearly 27,000 square kilometres. The semi-independent Gaza Strip only amounts to 360 square kilometres of this area, or about 1.33 per cent. The state’s widest part is nearly 180 kilometres and the longest part is 450 kilometres.

Therefore, the occupation state seems geographically poor to a dangerous extent and although it doesn’t seem to be alone globally or regionally in this regard, Israel’s nature or history further complicate this geographic bottleneck. This is because it was founded on aggression, occupation and displacement and therefore has put itself in an atmosphere of hostility and feuds that cannot be dissolved in a matter of days.

While the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is an important geographical outlet for Israel, it cannot eliminate the danger that surrounds the occupying state and threatens its depth. The Mediterranean coast may be an escape, as it was for the Crusaders in the past, or it could be a door open to the threats of neighbours when controlled by strong naval forces. However, it does not protect the state’s depth, not even from very out-dated rockets coming from behind the border.

Israel has continuously tried to address this complicated issue and has focused on two main means to do so. The first means is to strongly seek to normalise relations and reach peace treaties or political relations with Arab countries, especially those in close proximity, the second means is to ensure Israel’s overwhelming military superiority over its Arab neighbours. The latter means is the most prominent one used until now in the Israeli strategy to address this problem.

There is a large extent of international understanding for this element of the Israeli policy, despite regional fear and resentment. No major international parties, even those that openly object to some of Israel’s policies, have any problem with supplying Israel with sophisticated and qualitative weapons. France, for example, is one of the most cooperative countries with Israel in this regard.

Despite this, France criticises Israel’s oppressive policies against the Palestinians and its efforts to weaken the PA, which many European parties view as an important key to resolving the Palestinian cause via the so-called “two-state solution”.

However, Israel’s clear military superiority over all the Arab countries has not prevented a group such as Hezbollah from Lebanon and an organised military and political formation such as Palestine’s Hamas, despite their humble capabilities compared to Israel’s, from threatening the Israeli depth and forcing the Israeli army to withdraw from areas it occupied by force in past wars.

In this context, Sinai, which is over two and a half times the size of occupied Palestine, has been an important strategic area for Israel on the south side between the time after the June 1967 War and before it withdrew from the area in 1982.

Any war waged between Israel and Egypt under these conditions, which occurred in the October 1973 War, would, even in the event of defeat, leave room for retreat, manoeuvres and withdrawal into beyond the Israel depth.

The Israeli trade off Sinai in the peace process held with Anwar Sadat under US auspices in 1979 was both a win and a loss. Israel wins by neutralising its top enemy (Egypt) in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel would lose the Sinai Peninsula, which represented excellent protection.

Tel Aviv tried to compensate for this loss by stipulated the disarmament of two-thirds of the peninsula from heavy and medium-artillery weapons and the presence of multinational forces.

However, it became clear at the January 25th Revolution in 2011 in Egypt that this condition is not established enough, as any government in Cairo that is not sympathetic or cooperative with Tel Aviv, such as in the year of President Mohamed Morsi’s rule, can circumvent this agreement or use the threat of armed terrorism.

The cost of expansion

There is a spoken story being spread about the former Jordanian King, Hussein Bin Talal, that says he spoke to some Jordanians in the late 1980s and asked how many hours would it take Israel to occupy Jordan. Some of his audience said two hours, and the King said I have been preventing this for 38 years.

Although the Battle of Karameh in 1968 answered this question in a different way, as the Israeli army failed to cross the Jordan River in the face of the bravery of the Jordanian forces and Palestinian fedayeen.

This story seems to reveal a part of the Israeli policy related to the Israelis’ failure to bear the cost of expansion beyond the borders, despite the great difference in military force between the Arabs and Israel. This is the second problem I mentioned earlier as part of the structural problems that the occupying state is suffering from.

Israel’s experience of its sponsors, which are limited, living close to the people whose land they’ve occupied has proven its failure in over 70 per cent of the cases. Furthermore, some of these areas have turned into a hell for Israelis, both the army and civilians, such as in Gaza before Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 and in a number of West Bank areas today.

The only policy that Israel was successful in reducing the friction against its people and the threat to their security was the complete or partial expulsion of inhabitants of areas and the establishment of Jewish settlements. However, this moved the tension to other areas that will eventually blow up in the faces of the Israelis.

Internal displacement, i.e. displacement within the borders of the occupied territories in 1948, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has led to turning some of these areas into a dangerous enemy to the Israeli state, and the same goes for external displacement to Jordan, which seems very weak on the military level in comparison with Israel. However, it seems to be one of the fiercest areas Israel can think of occupying.

Israel’s keenness for Sinai to remain mostly disarmed after its return to Egypt and underdeveloped with a very small population density is part of the Israeli strategy to address this problem. It was also part of the solution to the problem of poor strategic depth.

The Egyptians discussed a number of ideas after Sinai was liberated from Israeli occupation in 1982 and they revolved around the need to integrate the land of turquoise to the mother country by hastening the pace of development there. This would prevent Israel from benefitting from it if it occupied it in the future and it would be a strong human dam that would block any hostile expansion in the region.

However, only a very small part of this idea became a reality, hence Sinai remained partly liberated and partly occupied and it did not thwart any opportunity for Israel to benefit from it or any battle to spark between it and Egypt so far.

Sinai at the forefront today

 Today Sinai is back at the forefront of the Egyptian-Israeli-Palestinian scene in ideal conditions for Tel Aviv, as Egypt is ruled by an individual who is aware of how important Sinai is for Israel and does not know how important and dangerous this is for Egypt.

According to the late Gamal Hamdan: “Sinai is not just a void or even a buffer, it is a geographic depth [for Egypt] and an early alarm via which we can buy time.”

This claim is confirmed by a number of events that have taken place in Sinai since the Egyptian coup in July 2013, starting with the expulsion of the inhabitants of Egypt’s Rafah, leaving the border area with the Gaza Strip empty of people. This area was the most populated area along the northeastern border for Egypt. There was also the transformation of Sinai into a warzone that does not distinguish between violent groups and outlaws and peaceful citizens, as well as Al-Sisi’s proposal to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and part of Sinai.

Israel had never even dreamed of this generosity, as this great tension will turn Sinai into a land expelling its people after it had been relatively attractive to people in the past ten years. It has become a barren or partially barren area raided by Israel whenever it wants within a matter of hours, and in which it can settle down safely and be reassured whenever it wants.

Perhaps the future does not hold an explicit Israeli occupation of Sinai until the religious and political fanaticism that is currently widespread in Israel intervenes. However, Tel Aviv will make sure that Sinai only benefits Egypt at a minimal level, either by seeking to relocate some Palestinians to it or resisting any development taking place in it.

Translated from Al Jazeera, 27 February 2017

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