A triangle has formed in recent months that includes the relations between 3 regional players, Egypt, Hamas and Israel. The triangle is focussed around the Sinai region which, with a loosened grip of control by the Egyptian government, has created a vacuum for which terrorists from various factions have been able to exploit. Four major inter-related events have taken place recently that illustrate the highly sensitive nature of this region:
- 18th August 2011 - A cross border raid from Gaza, through the Sinai and into Israel results in 8 Israelis being killed. The result of which was a renewed round of violence between Israel and armed oranisations in Gaza.
- Following the cross border raide, 5 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Israel's return of fire which resulted in the incitement of Egyptian youths and culminated in the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on 9th September.
- 18th October 2011 - Gilad Shalit is released after 5 years in captivity following mediation by Egypt and thus ending 5 years of negotiations.
- Late October 2011 - more rockets are fired from Gaza with return shelling by Israel's Air Force and ending with a ceasefire mediated by the Egyptians.
What is clear to see is the following: 1) The Arab Spring has created a highly unstable Sinai region that is a hotbed for terrorist activity and smuggling of weapons for groups ranging from Hamas to Al Quaida; 2) The voice of the Arab people is strong and has major influence that can easily be turned against Israel; 3) Despite this, the Egyptian government has proved itself a capable negotiator and holds strong influence in the region.
Let us now look at each of the above incidents to review how they impact on the situation as a whole and Israel Egypt relations in particular.
On October 18th fifteen men from the Popular Resistence Committees, the same group that kidnapped Gilad Shalit and three Americans in Gaza, wore clothes almost identical to Egyptian soldiers and carried out a raid that originated in Gaza but was launched from the Sinai, so as to confuse the Israeli military, with the aim of killing or kidnapping Israeli citizens. Israeli intelligence had forewarning of the attack and so was well prepared to retaliate before more damage could be done and resulted in the killing of 5 Egyptian soldiers in the ensuing gun fight that took place. That the attack was possible at all is due to a loss of control in the Sinai that elements from Gaza can now cross freely without the watchful guard of Egyptian soldiers. The attack also indicates how Hamas was unable to control other armed elements in Gaza and had to pay the price of Israeli air strikes before a ceasefire could finally take place but no thanks to Hamas but rather to the Egyptian interim government.
Egypt was caught in the middle of this incident and was infuriated to have 5 of its soldiers killed in a conflict that had little to do with them. With Israel being mindful of its delicate relations with Egypt and finding itself isolated in the new Middle East, felt the need to appease Egypt by delivering an apology for those killed that was given on the same day that Gilad Shalit was released on October 18th. Equally, Egypt's relations with Hamas were stretched upon finding that its military clothing had been used to stage an attack against Israel.
The Sinai as a Hotbed for Terrorism
The attack mentioned above highlights how the Sinai has become a vacuum for Islamist terrorist activity. Beduin tribes, once discriminated against by the Mubarak regime through lack of civil rights of owning land, attaining certain jobs and having had no investment put into the Sinai, now survive by acting as smuggling agents for anyone willing to hire their services to finance an underground economy.
The pipeline that sends gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan and provides Israel with 40% of its gas has been attacked no less than 7 times since Mubarak was deposed. Smuggling of weapons has increased considerably with greater ease and with the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, weapons from Libya are now flowing through the Sinai. After an Egyptian police station was attacked in the Sinai town of El Arish, for the first time since 1979, Israel has allowed Egypt to send in reinforcements to regain stability in the Sinai though it is uncertain whether this will be enough.
Internal Politics in Egypt
Egypt is currently undergoing a period of deep transition and it is very unclear where it will end up. What is clear however is that the Egyptian people have found their voice and are insisting they be heard. It is also possible that with the fall of the secular regime of President Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood will strengthen considerably and may well gain popularity on the back of the heavy anti-Israel sentiment that exists in Egyptian society. An examples of this comes in the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September that had Israeli personnel taking refuge in the secure room in the Embassy and being saved at the last minute by mediation from Barack Obama and an elite commando unit of the Egyptian army.
The background to the angry mob storming the embassy was the accidental killing of 5 Egyptian soldiers in the return fire of Israeli soldiers in the attack described above. The storming was sparked by this event though the basis for it was a swelling of anti-Israel feeling from the people themselves who have been demanding an end to the Israel-Egypt peace deal of 1979. The international community as well as Israel and Egypt themselves are well aware that it is this treaty that is remaining the last block of stability for Israel Egypt relations.
The Gilad Shalit Deal
It took Israel and Hamas over 5 years to negotiate a deal that would see the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners in return for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. The breakthrough came as a result of a change in relations between Hamas and Egypt.
One major factor behind this change is what is happening in Damascus, current home to Hamas's headquarters. With the imminent fall of Bashar Al Assad's regime there, Hamas is feeling insecure about where it will base its next home, and so is turning increasingly towards Egypt for help, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood gains strength there.In addition to this, Hamas has been suffering from reduced aid from its patron, Iran, increasing unpopularity in Gaza due to economic difficulties and bad governance and its rejection of Mahmud Abbas's attempt of unilateral state recognition at the UN last month. In addition, Hamas feels itself pressured by other terrorist factions in Gaza who seem to be challenging Hamas's control there as it finds it difficult to balance between acting as a government and continuing its struggle against Israel. All of this meant that it badly needed an achievement to show the residents of Gaza and win back popular support.
For its part, Israel found this was the window of opportunity to have Shalit released as the sands were shifting beyond its control, it was being isolated internationally and within the Middle East, it had lost its key alley of Turkey and was being threatened by Abbas's attempt for statehood at the UN that was gathering pace and international support.
In all of this Egypt saw its opportunity to replace the German mediators and act as the saving interlocutor that both Hamas and Israel needed to strengthen their ties with Egypt.
It would seem that although Egypt is an unstable state and poses serious potential risk to Israel and Israel Egypt relations, it is also a proven mediator and hold particular influence in the region. It is likely then that whoever comes to power following elections there, they will want to honour the 1979 peace agreement as it will enable it to continue their position in the new Middle East and its aid from the US.
As Hamas comes to depend on Egypt more too, Israel will need to maintain as close relations with Egypt as possible in case of future kidnappings and other attacks that may well require Egyptian mediation. Indeed, with the Muslim Bortherhood gaining strength in Egypt, Hamas has felt emboldened by this and claimed an aim to carry out more kidnappings of Israeli citizens.
Whether Egypt will be able to play a larger role in Israel-PA relations is yet to be seen but following the loud voice of the Egpytian people that is very much anti-Israel, the Egyptian government will have to take heed of this if it is to remain in power and so should Israel-PA relations deteriorate into legal and political confrontations, then so shall Israel Egypt relations follow suit. Furthermore, should this be the case then Israel will find itself in a sharp dilemma as to how much it allowed the Egyptian military to build up its presence in the Sinai to prevent smuggling when at the same time its own people are demanding an end to the 1979 peace pact and an end to Israel Egypt relations altogether.