Lessons for the West Bank in Sinai

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

After radical Islamists killed 16 soldiers at an Egyptian army outpost in Sinai this August, Egypt’s military pointed an accusing finger straight at Hamas-run Gaza, whence it said some of the terrorists came. Suiting action to words, Cairo swiftly shut the Egypt-Gaza border crossing, massed troops near Gaza, destroyed some of the cross-border smuggling tunnels and demanded that Hamas extradite three suspects.

This response highlighted a fact that had previously attracted little notice: While Israel has long complained of arms and terrorists entering Gaza from Sinai, the traffic actually goes in both directions. In fact, as a recent study showed, Gaza has played a major role in radicalizing Sinai.

But that fact has an uncomfortable corollary: To some extent, Sinai’s radicalization was an unintended consequence of Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza. For it was Israel’s pullback that opened the gates through which arms, extremists and radical ideology then poured. And this raises serious questions about the potential consequences for Jordan should Israel accede to international pressure to quit the Jordan Valley.

In a study published by the Washington Institute in January, veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari traced the spread of radical Islam among Sinai Bedouin since the 1980s. Initially, this spread was slow, he wrote, but it exploded after the disengagement:

As Bedouin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it, “a fireball started rolling into the peninsula.” Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk … In short, despite then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s quiet hope that Cairo would assume unofficial responsibility for Gaza affairs, the Israeli withdrawal instead allowed Hamas to export its influence into Egyptian territory.

Even before 2005, the border wasn’t hermetically sealed: Despite battling the smuggling nonstop, the Israel Defense Forces never succeeded in halting it entirely. But once the IDF left, smugglers could operate unhindered. Hence, the number of smuggling tunnels soared – to about 1,200, Yaari said – and this increased capacity allowed two-way traffic to surge. Consequently, “the arms flow was often reversed, with weapons going from Gaza to the Sinai. During the revolution, for example, observers noted a huge demand for firearms in the peninsula … Today, a significant number of Hamas military operatives are permanently stationed in the Sinai, serving as recruiters, couriers, and propagators of the Hamas platform. A solid network of the group’s contact men, safe houses, and armories covers much of the peninsula.”

A former IDF officer, Jonathan Halevi, subsequently amplified Yaari’s findings by exploring the Gaza side of the equation. Under Hamas rule, Halevi wrote, many radical Islamic groups flourished in Gaza, including three that Egypt’s military suspect of involvement in August’s attack. Hamas let such groups operate freely as long as they didn’t threaten its rule. And to this end, it sometimes encouraged them to redirect their attention to Sinai.

Theoretically, of course, Egypt could have taken over the IDF’s role in suppressing the Sinai-Gaza smuggling trade. Yaari argues convincingly that Cairo simply didn’t want to, noting that it consistently sent fewer troops to the border than it could have under its agreements with Israel.

But in truth, replicating the IDF’s activity wouldn’t have been easy even if Egypt had so desired. Israel maintained a massive military presence in Gaza and fought the smuggling with every tool in its arsenal, including tanks and airborne missiles, yet still couldn’t stop it completely. In contrast, the Israeli-Egyptian treaty limits Egypt to lightly armed policemen in the part of Sinai nearest Israel. Jerusalem did accede to several Egyptian requests to augment this force, but it probably wouldn’t have approved anything comparable to the IDF presence in Gaza.

And even if it had, Cairo might well have found it politically untenable to deploy massive military force, in full cooperation with Israel, to “lock its Palestinian brethren into a giant prison.”

Nor could the Palestinian Authority substitute for the IDF. Even before Hamas booted it from Gaza in 2007, the PA never attempted to combat the smuggling. But even had it wanted to, it lacked the military capability – as shown by the ease with which Hamas defeated it in 2007. And Israel certainly wouldn’t have let the PA acquire tanks and helicopter gunships.

One might argue that all this is water under the bridge: The IDF is gone, and isn’t likely to return, and Sinai’s radicalization can’t be undone.

But the lessons must be learned to keep this process from being repeated in an even more sensitive locale – Jordan.

Granted, neither an Israeli-Palestinian agreement nor a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is likely anytime soon. But given the unrelenting international demands for Israel to quit this territory, it could happen someday. And Jordan is, in some ways, even more vulnerable to exported Palestinian radicalism than Sinai: Whereas Sinai Bedouin had no inherent ties with Gaza’s Palestinians, Jordan’s population is two-thirds Palestinian.

There’s also one important way in which Jordan is less vulnerable: It has always policed its border with the West Bank much more effectively than Egypt did with Gaza, and its treaty with Israel doesn’t impose the kind of military restrictions the Israeli-Egyptian treaty does.

Nevertheless, Jordan currently cooperates closely with the IDF. Thus, barring the kind of draconian military measures that its Palestinian-majority population would make politically impossible, an Israeli withdrawal would leave Jordan dependent on the Palestinians to police their side of the border. And even if the Palestinian government were willing to cooperate and able to avoid a reprise of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza – both far from certain – it would still lack Israel’s military capabilities: Every serious peace plan has called for demilitarizing the Palestinian state.

This conundrum is precisely why Israeli military planners initially urged that the Gaza pullout not be complete: The IDF, they said, should remain along the Egyptian border. Israel’s government rejected that proposal. But in retrospect, Egypt might be better off if it hadn’t.

Similarly, every Israeli proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian deal has included leaving the IDF in the Jordan Valley. So far, Washington hasn’t supported this idea. But in light of the Sinai experience, it may be time for Washington to rethink its opposition.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.