The series of ambushes on Israeli targets along the Egyptian border today exacted a painful price for Israel: seven dead and nearly 30 wounded. In the long run they point to an ominous trend: Egypt’s Sinai desert, where the gunmen originated, is drifting toward lawlessness.
In at least four separate attacks, gunmen who had slipped across the border fired on Israeli buses and cars and ambushed troops, according to a preliminary investigation carried out by law enforcement. Other militants fired rockets toward the same border area, in what appears to have been a coordinated operation. Six of the seven people killed were traveling in a car when it was hit by an antitank missile.
Attacks in the area, just north of Israel’s resort town of Eilat, are rare. The town is brimming with tourists this time of year, and at least some of the victims appear to have been foreigners. Israeli media also said the casualties included soldiers who live in Eilat and had been home for the weekend.
Long after reports of the first shooting, at around midday, Israeli policemen and soldiers were still combing the area for militants. At one point, shots were heard near a site where Army Chief Benn Gantz was briefing reporters about the attack.
Sinai is a sparsely populated peninsula that has served as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt since the two countries signed a peace accord in 1979. The agreement limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in the area, a measure meant to prevent surprise military attacks on Israel.
But on several occasions in recent months, Egypt has asked for and received permission from Israel to inject more troops into the area in order to restore law and order. Sinai is mostly inhabited by Bedouins, many of whom feel the central government in Cairo has been neglecting them for years.
Since February, when protesters ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Bedouins in Sinai have been waging their own insurrection, attacking police stations and on at least three separate occasions bombing the pipeline that carries gas from Egypt to Israel.
Analysts say the core of the dissatisfaction among the Bedouins is economic. While Sinai‘s beaches are among Egypt’s biggest tourist attractions, the rest of the peninsula has been left largely undeveloped by the central government.
But in recent years the Bedouin population is also believed to have collaborated with Hamas and other jihadi groups in both weapons smuggling and armed attacks.
“The government has made huge investments in Sinai in recent years, but the Bedouins didn’t benefit because in most cases Egyptian workers were imported from other parts of the country to do the work,” says Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.
“And so now, since the start of what we’re calling the Arab spring, the Egyptian authorities have practically lost control of Sinai,” he said.
Israeli officials have been worried since Mubarak was ousted that a weak central government would spell problems along the Israeli-Egyptian border, which is largely unfenced. In the aftermath of the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to accelerate the building of the fence along the frontier.
He also ordered Israeli war planes to attack the Gaza Strip, in a sign that Israel believes Palestinians might have been involved in the operation.
For Egypt, the attacks spell serious economic trouble. Tourism to the country dropped precipitously during the revolution in February and has still not fully recovered. If tourists stay away from Sinai during the coming winter months—when the cold weather in Europe makes Egypt an attractive destination—the country’s prospects of recovering from long months of economic instability look dim.
Still, it’s not clear that such attacks, including the bombing of the pipeline delivering gas to Israel, are unpopular in Egypt. Surveys conducted since Mubarak’s ouster have shown widespread discontent over Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and especially over its gas exports to the Jewish state.
In the trial now underway against Mubarak, one of the charges against him is that he deliberately underpriced the gas in exchange for kickbacks from Israel.