The grass is no greener on the other side of the fence

The poor state of affairs on Israel’s side of the Egyptian border is only half the story. After all, the smuggling and infiltrations that bedevil the Jewish state are carried out under the noses of Egyptian policemen. Wouldn’t these activities decrease if they more effectively fulfilled their duties?

“There’s a tendency to blame the Egyptians for what’s going on at the border,” said Shmulik Bachar, research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, “and the truth is that they don’t do much.”

The flow of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, for example, could be stopped at Egypt’s southern border, a thousand kilometers from the Negev, if Cairo would move to seal the area. But Egypt maintains only a small military presence in the south, Bachar said, “because their military conception is based entirely on the Israeli threat, and because they’re concerned about Cairo’s survival, nothing else.”

Despite the fact that Sudan’s Islamist government is believed to have supported assassination attempts against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Bachar said, “Israel will always be considered more of a threat than any other Arab or Islamic state.”

Egyptian security along the Israeli border, meanwhile, is a study in incompetence and paralysis. The policemen stationed there do little – and what they do, they do harmfully. (Specifically, their sole method of intervention is to shoot the Africans trying to reach Israel; they have killed and maimed dozens, including women, sometimes within sight of IDF soldiers.) As per the peace accords with Israel, Egypt may not send soldiers to the border, nor even a large number of police. Add to this restriction the fact that Egyptian authorities choose to assign to the border a low caliber of personnel, and the problem intensifies.

Anyone who has listened to the Egyptian police screaming nonsensically into the night, or witnessed them firing their weapons simply to pass the time, can attest to the character of such men. Some have revealed, in their occasional conversations with Beduin trackers serving in the IDF, that they were convicts offered shortened prison sentences in exchange for being stationed on the remote outposts of the border. Others simply go mad from the loneliness, as for many the occasional sight of IDF patrols is the entire extent of their human interaction.

Why allow such a situation?

“Sinai has always been regarded as something of a foreign body in relation to the body politic of the Egypt that revolves around Cairo,” Bachar explained. “They don’t treat it with the same seriousness as the rest of the country.”

That is not to say that the government takes no interest in the goings-on in the peninsula, or that it doesn’t attempt to show that it is active there. Recently authorities announced that they had arrested leaders of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, two Sinai Beduin and a Palestinian, charging them with plotting a terrorist attack with Hamas.

The Muslim Brotherhood members were alleged to have paid the equivalent of $3,600 to two Beduin to buy 30 jerry cans of fuel, spare parts and a remote control for an unmanned aircraft to be built by Hamas for an unspecified attack.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas immediately denounced the report as a fabrication. Bachar wouldn’t be surprised if that were so.

“Every so often Egypt announces it has caught terrorists. But it’s all propaganda,” he said. “There’s no strategic decision to treat this seriously.”

One expression of this failure to treat Sinai security seriously is the emergence of local Beduin as professional drug smugglers and gunrunners. In addition to growing marijuana in hard-to-reach valleys near the border, they are widely acknowledged as being responsible for the devastating bombings of prime tourism magnets on the peninsula in the past few years.

“When it comes to the involvement in terrorism of the Beduin of the northern Sinai,” Bachar said, “people often talk about the influence of radical Islam. Well, that’s bullshit. These are just tribes that are bitter about being abandoned by the government. They smuggle weapons for money, and to get back at the government for decades of neglect and mistreatment.”

A year ago, Egypt rushed hundreds of policemen to the border to fend off hordes of machine gun-wielding Beduin who were protesting mistreatment at the hands of the authorities in Cairo. The threat remains, Bachar said, because Cairo has not taken steps to better integrate the Sinai Beduin into Egyptian society or to share with them the benefits of the local tourism trade.

Worse, and more complex, is the threat emanating from Gaza. Hamas’s bombardment of the Rafah border earlier this year, and its threat to do so again, have brought the government to a much higher level of alert and concern than any other security incident in recent memory.

“They see the Gordian knot between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas,” Bachar said, referring to the strong ideological bonds between Egypt’s largest opposition group and the Palestinian group that is its offshoot.

“The Brothers are really the true threat to the administration, so [Egypt] can’t be too harsh on the organization’s friends, Hamas. On the other hand, they see Hamas setting up a state inside Sinai. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“The government does understand the danger of Hamas infiltrating Sinai,” he continued. “But it has gone so far, that it’s hard to stop. The organization is smuggling tremendous amounts of weapons through and into the area; they’re traveling with and to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. With only a small number of forces there, what can [the Egyptian police] do?”

Israel, Bachar suggested, “ought to seriously consider allowing Egypt to add more forces to the area… but the question is, once you allow that situation, how can it be undone?”

Yet he does not blame the Egyptians entirely for the lack of strenuous security at the border, saying that Israel could do more as well.

“A few years ago,” Bachar said, “when I was in the army and I would bring my soldiers to the border, they would see how bad the fence was and how few people were there to defend it, and they would ask me who was guarding the border. I’m sorry to say it, but I had to admit that the forces there were insufficient. And you know what? The situation hasn’t changed much for the better.”

Once guarded by a small number of soldiers and border police, the Israeli side of the border is now patrolled by a slightly larger number of forces. However, these are mostly reservists and standing army units like Karakal, which include a high percentage of women soldiers – a force structure that, despite its merits, cannot be compared with the more highly regarded troops of the infantry brigades.

If the issue of personnel is merely problematic in Bachar’s eyes, though, the issue of infrastructure is much more severe.

“Not until Israel wakes up and a serious fence is erected along the entire length of the border, something along the lines of the barrier being built in the West Bank, will we be able to control what goes on there,” he said. “We aren’t taking care of things on our end, yet we complain about the Egyptians. Let’s take care of our own responsibilities, and then worry about the Egyptians.”

This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com /servlet/Satellite?cid=1210668641426&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

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