Strategic concerns are taking precedence over security issues in Sinai, writes Ahmed Eleiba
Egyptian military commanders in Sinai have shifted tack and are now hunkering down for the long term. Operation Eagle has been roundly criticised but what clinched the change is last week's attack in which an Israeli soldier and three of the perpetrators died. It demonstrated that terrorist cells remain active in an insecure environment.
The object of the attack, according to political analyst Jack Khouri, was to capture an Israeli prisoner so as to draw attention to security coordination between Cairo and Tel Aviv. His assessment was confirmed when a group calling itself Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) claimed responsibility for the attack and in the same statement highlighted that strategic and security coordination between the two sides is at one of its highest levels ever.
A source in Sinai said that military reconnaissance planes are conducting daily sweeps of the border areas. This appears to be one of the new methods now being favoured over intensive military troop and machinery action.
Leaks from security agencies revealing visits by Binyamin Netanyahu's security advisor Isaac Molho to Cairo in the period that followed President Mohamed Mursi's coup against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the appointment of General Raafat Shehata as chief of General Intelligence suggest that Egyptian-Israeli security coordination has indeed been stepped up.
Lieutenant General Hossam Khairallah, former deputy director of General Intelligence, believes that Shehata is up to the challenges he faces and "fully aware of what is involved".
Sinai has long been a security concern. As of 2005 it became a strategic problem. According to a national security expert who has been following the situation: "We held an extensive series of meetings in Sinai to better familiarise ourselves with details of the security breakdown there. Some of the best and most experienced military and security experts participated in these meetings, and concluded that Sinai has become a strategic dilemma for the Egyptian state."
He pointed out that since 2005 terrorist organisations have been operating with such freedom in the peninsula that they could choose the timing of their attacks. But "these small groups" he warns, "are not what exists in the security chaos of today".
"SCAF," said the same source, speaking on condition of anonymity, "managed operations in Sinai as though it was a place about which we knew nothing, not somewhere we had visited many times and about which we had compiled dozens of reports. The magnitude of the problem today is bigger than ever. There is a network encompassing arms repositories, foreign funding and drug trafficking, and there has been little understanding of the nature of the people, tribal composition and society in Sinai."
It would appear that recent attempts to open dialogue with jihadist group leaders in Sinai have failed to bear fruit.
Nazar Gharab promoted the initiative aimed at persuading jihadist groups in the peninsula to make ideological revisions. He urged the government to take up his suggestion to reach out in an attempt to persuade them to relinquish their animosity to the state and perhaps win over their support. Several weeks after the dialogue initiative was set into motion Mamdouh Ismail, the former jihadist and Salafi MP, is pessimistic.
"The situation in Sinai is complex and unclear," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are paying the price for the failures of the Mubarak regime."
"The Islamists have their own particular view of the Zionist enemy. However, there are some groups that were manufactured by the intelligence agencies or shaped to their liking, and then set loose. These groups have now become a blend of drug traffickers and takfiris [Muslims who accuse others of apostasy]. Also, the situation on the Palestinian-Sinai border has made it possible for groups controlled by Mohamed Dahlan's Preventive Security Service to infiltrate into Sinai. It is essential to cut off all channels of support for them at home or abroad. In tandem, the government needs to pay more attention to Sinai in general and put the minds of the Sinai people to rest."
A domestic security officer from Hamas told the Weekly that the election of Mursi as Egypt's president had ushered in several important developments in Gaza. In response to requests from the president the heads of the central and branch departments of the Gaza security agencies were changed. All tunnels used for the movement of people were destroyed and the only tunnels that remain are those used to convey goods and arms. These are now completely controlled by the security department and are likely to be destroyed in the event that Egypt and Gaza create a free trade zone.
With regard to the continuing flow of arms into Gaza the source said that Israel, which has four new satellites, is trying to identify the smuggling routes, but without success.
"In the period following the Egyptian revolution weapons, including missiles, missile launchers and explosives -- mostly coming from Libya -- arrived in unprecedented quantities, enabling us to build a formidable arsenal."
The source stressed, however, that the Hamas government has been fully committed to meeting Egypt's security demands "to the degree that we are on almost permanent alert".
"I was on duty when the Rafah incident occurred. Afterwards we mobilised all our forces and, the month before last, mounted an investigation of every suspicious element. Eventually we found two men, one Yemeni and the other Libyan, who were involved in the attack. I believe they will be handed over to Egypt soon, if they haven't already."
Egyptian military expert Brigadier-General Safwat Al-Zayat takes exception to such remarks.
"How can Hamas shift the lines of its confrontation from Gaza to Egypt? That is deliberate embroilment."
He added that earlier denials by Mahmoud Al-Zahar that any Palestinians were involved in the Rafah attack "flew in the face of logic and fact".
"The volume of trade passing through the tunnels, whether in goods or arms, is estimated at $500 million per month. Are the smugglers going to abandon such a lucrative source of funds?"
Other security experts believe the $500 million estimate is too low.
Meanwhile, there was brief spat between Cairo and Tel Aviv last week when presidential advisor Esmat Seif Al-Dawla announced that he had been working on ways to amend the Camp David accord. This elicited a gruff response from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who said Israel had no desire to amend the accord and Egypt cannot impose changes.
Netanyahu's response was more diplomatic. According to Al-Zayat, the Israeli prime minister simply issued instructions to speed up the construction of a wall along the Egyptian-Israeli border. About 180km of the 250km long wall have been completed and the remaining 70km are now expected to be finished within six months. The purpose of the wall is to prevent the kind of recent attacks that have forced the Israeli army to step up deployment operations along the Egyptian border.
Observers generally agree that the Egyptians and Israelis are playing their cards openly. When President Mursi first came to power and floated the possibility of altering the Camp David protocols, Dore Gold, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Studies, wrote in Israel Today that "President Mursi speaks with two tongues".
"One is the language of international politics and respect for international commitments, the other speaks of linking the settlement process with the Palestinians with Egypt's ongoing respect for the peace treaty," which Israel takes as a hint that he won't continue to abide by the peace agreement if Israel doesn't honour its agreements with the Palestinians.
However much Israeli commentators harp on about Egypt and the peace treaty the crucial gauge, says Said Okasha, an expert on Israeli affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is the level of security coordination between Israel and Egypt under Mursi. Initially tense it has now evened out.
Okasha cautions against counting on any amendment of the Camp David protocols, pointing out that despite its support of Israel all the Mubarak regime could manage was a bilateral initiative that permitted the entry of 750 Egyptian troops into Area C without altering the text of the accord.
Khairallah disagrees. That was an amendment and it can happen again in the future, he says, explaining that Egypt can set into motion the amendment process by submitting proposals after which a meeting with the Israelis must be held within 30 days. If the two sides do not reach an agreement Egypt can then appeal for arbitration.
It is not a course Khairallah recommends.
"Egypt's political situation remains weak on several fronts. We have a huge agenda before us, including a referendum on the constitution and the next People's Assembly elections. Also, the US is preoccupied with presidential elections and we need Washington's support to strengthen our position."
In a tangential development, Israel has raised the issue of Jewish refugees from Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, which it plans to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations over Palestinian refugees. Israeli authorities have launched a worldwide media campaign on "Jewish refugees from Arab countries" and are now claiming a peace agreement with the Palestinians cannot be reached independently of the issue.