The Sinai Peninsula – a Mini Somalia in Israel’s Back Yard

Yesterday, an international conference on Somalia led by Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and the US Secretary of States Hillary Clinton was held in London to discuss the future of the failed state and the ways to establish a central government and to fight terrorism and piracy operating from its territory. After years of paying lip service and doing very little, a few decisions were taken yesterday in London that are aimed at changing course in Somalia and that only time will tell how decisively they will be implemented.

Against the background of long years of lack of central government, violence, retardation, illiteracy, poverty and hunger, two malaises bloomed in Somalia – the Al-Shabaab militia and the piracy industry. Al-Shabaab, an extreme Islamist organisation that announced not long ago that it is joining Al Qaeda, is fighting the Somali transitional government and although it was recently pushed back from the Capital Mogadishu by an international African force, it is still in control of large areas of the country and is preventing international aid organisations from delivering food and other supplies to a million starving Somalis. In parallel, a new and highly profitable industry has developed in Somalia during the last decade – piracy. Somali pirates go out to sea in fast motor boats, armed with not much more than assault rifles and R.P.G. rocket launchers. They take over merchant ships and tankers, sometimes at huge distances from Somali shores, bring them to anchor near the state’s shore and hold negotiations with their owners via commission seeking European middlemen, which normally ends with paying a ransom of millions of dollars for the release of the vessels and their crews. This industry has recently expanded to armed attacks on Kenyan holiday beach resorts, and the murder and kidnap of foreign tourists who are taken by sea to Somalia.

In Israel’s back yard, a new mini Somalia is flourishing in the Sinai Peninsula. Young Bedouin tribesmen, radicalised by members of the Egyptian Islamist extremist Salafi party, are becoming more and more active not just in the smuggling of drugs and illegal job seekers into Israel but also in attacks on the pipe supplying Egyptian gas to Israel, the murder of Egyptian policemen and the provision of assistance to Palestinian terrorists crossing from Gaza into the Sinai through the tunnels. Even if the development of a fully-fledged Somali style piracy industry is beyond their reach, it is likely that we will see in the future an increase in their attempts to murder and kidnap Israeli and foreign tourists from holiday resorts in the Sinai and even attempts to kidnap Israelis from small vessels in the Gulf of Eilat. All these, of course, in addition to terror attacks and attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians along the southern border. The fence which is currently being built along sections of this border will not provide a complete answer to the problem – Regev and Goldwasser were kidnapped into Lebanon through a similar fence during the 2006 Hezbollah attack.

Israel’s ability to carry out preventative activity inside the Sinai, using special forces or pilotless drones, is very limited. It is doubtful that a pursuit of murderers or kidnappers into the Sinai will be carried out in the future due to the ‘sensitivities’ of the Egyptian military regime that has long ago lost control over the Sinai. At this stage, the best that Israel can do to deal with the threat coming from the Sinai is to focus on prevention. To strengthen the various defensive means and to invest what it can in intelligence and early warning systems. Israeli tourists who still travel to holiday resorts in the Sinai must understand that they are putting their lives on the line. The state would not be able to do anything for them if they were to be attacked or fall into the hands of the lawless who have taken control over Israel’s back yard.

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