By Aaron Arnstein
Since the country’s inception, Israel has been under constant threat by its neighbors.
Hezbollah-backed Lebanon in the North. The Assad dictatorship in the Northeast. The concern of an Intifada out of the West Bank. The presence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Add a fifth front to the list: Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Since 2011, the Sinai Peninsula, or Sinai for short, has become a breeding ground for Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. These organizations have taken advantage of a weak Egyptian military to assert their presence to the south of Israel, transforming the region into one of the largest terror grounds in the Middle East.
The Sinai Peninsula recently made headlines following a helicopter crash that killed five Americans and injured another while on a routine peacekeeping mission in the region. Unfortunately, the Sinai region is all too familiar with tragedy. Israel must do whatever is necessary to reduce danger in the Sinai Peninsula to protect the State of Israel.
Although the Sinai was to act as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt following the Camp David Accords in 1978, the peninsula has developed into a source of concern for Israelis and the entire region.
Home to the Bedouin tribe, nomadic Arabs that inhabit the desert regions across the Middle East, conflict arose when the Bedouin launched a series of attacks on the government during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Bedouin have long accused the Egyptian government of discrimination against their people in the Sinai Peninsula. While a fraction of Bedouins have joined forces with the Islamic terror groups, many are just trying to escape death in one of the most dangerous regions of the Middle East.
What does this mean for Israel?
Well, frankly, a lot.
For nearly a decade, Israel has supported the Egyptian military in its fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS through various methods of counterterrorism. In 2018, The New York Times reported a covert Israeli air campaign that carried out over 100 airstrikes inside Egypt using unmarked drones, helicopters and jets for more than two years. National security concerns have ensured that the full extent of Israeli operations, such as boots on the ground, remain largely unknown. The Times also reported Israel’s classified actions were fully approved by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, displaying the strong coalition between the Israeli and Egyptian governments.
Although there have been no reports since 2018 of Israeli drone strikes and jet sightings, there is near certainty among foreign policy experts of ongoing Israeli counterintelligence operations that are undisclosed to the public.
Israel must maintain a strong, albeit covert, presence in the Sinai to protect its nation. Islamic radicals pose an imminent threat to the State of Israel due to their access to the Gaza Strip coupled with the constant instability of the Middle East. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS use cross-border tunnels to smuggle weapons between the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.
If Israel were to relax its presence at the country’s southern border, Islamic terrorist groups may see this as an opportunity to establish a presence in the Gaza Strip. In a region so volatile, should Islamic terrorists in the Sinai join forces with Hamas and Hezbollah, the safety of Israel would be in serious jeopardy.
Since the establishment of jihadist groups in the Sinai, the Israeli death toll has remained extremely low in the immediate vicinity, with only one reported fatality. With so few casualties, Israeli forces should maintain their presence on the border between the Sinai and Israel. Their presence also protects nearby Be’er Sheva from incoming attacks.
Israel regularly receives criticism for working hand-in-hand with the Egyptian government, an authoritarian regime responsible for human rights atrocities such as the displacement of over 100,000 North Sinai residents since 2014, according to the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch. Despite this, Israel has allied with numerous countries notable for their persecution of specific demographic groups. Israel recently made peace with the United Arab Emirates, a nation that severely restricts women’s rights and permits domestic violence. One month later, Israel signed a peace treaty with Sudan, a country that only recently abolished the death penalty for homosexuality.
Maybe the biggest argument against Israeli mobilization in the peninsula is what critics call “Israeli intrusion” onto Egyptian land. After all, the Sinai belongs to Egypt, not Israel. However, it must be made clear that Israelis are not only stifling the threat of jihadism towards Israel, but also in Egypt. President Al-Sisi, who The Economist described as “the most pro-Israeli Egyptian leader ever” has privately called for the assistance of various sectors of Israel’s military. Furthermore, Egyptian security is Israeli security and Israel must do whatever it takes to keep tensions in the Sinai at a minimum.
With terrorist activity in the region at a minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic, the State of Israel cannot let its guard down. The instability of the Middle East can prove detrimental at any time, especially to a small, Jewish state amongst its mighty Arab neighbors.
And if Israel were to pull out from the Sinai, relax its borders or decrease its military presence?
For some Israelis, it may be the difference between life and death.