James M. Dorsey | 12 Aug 2010
World Politics Review
A recent rocket attack on the twin Red Sea resorts of Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan raises the specter of renewed Bedouin violence in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, where security forces are struggling to fight crime, illegal immigration and terrorist threats, as well as to protect oil and gas pipelines.
In the wake of the attacks, an Egyptian security operation aimed at uprooting militant Palestinian and Bedouin groups as well as jihadist elements confirmed Israeli and Jordanian claims that the rockets had been launched from Sinai. It was the second such attack in four months. Security forces discovered evidence of a misfired Grad-type rocket during the operation that focused on the mountains near the resort of Taba as well as areas near Sinai's border with Gaza that have been declared off limits to foreigners. Days before the attacks, security forces reportedly arrested three men in a bomb-laden vehicle they intended to explode in the resort of Sharm el Sheikh.
Egypt has long had difficulty maintaining law and order in the Sinai, crucial to the country's tourism industry. Bedouin tribesmen operate an extensive smuggling network that tunnels supplies into the beleaguered Gaza Strip and sneaks African migrants across the border into Israel. Tribesmen assisted in a spate of bombings of tourism resorts in the Sinai between 2004 and 2006 in which 145 people were killed. A group believed to be linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility in 2005 for rocket launched from Sinai at U.S. war ships docked in the port of Aqaba, and Egypt has since announced various arrests of Palestinians seeking to launch projectiles from the peninsula.
Authorities in Egypt and Israel fear that the rocket attacks signal an increase in jihadist activity in the Sinai and radicalization of Bedouin groups. The rocket attacks add to mounting tension on Israel's borders in the wake of the first clash between Israeli and Lebanese forces since Israel attacked the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in 2006 and as Arab states seek to ensure that the imminent announcement of the results of an international inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri does not plunge Lebanon into renewed civil strife. The inquiry is expected to conclude that Hezbollah operatives were involved in the assassination.
The rocket attacks were likely designed to maintain pressure on the Egyptian government to make good on promises to address Bedouin grievances and to reassert the Bedouin's role as suppliers to the Gaza Strip at a moment that their business is threatened by Israel's decision to significantly loosen its blockade of Gaza. Bedouin militancy stems from racial discrimination as well as a sense that the government has failed to follow through on promises to invest in economic and social development. Of the $22 billion pledged in 1994 by the government for Sinai development, only $2 billion has so far been invested, primarily in the construction of tourism facilities in the south and in securing the border with Gaza. The Bedouin say they have benefited little from those investments. Tourism is a $10.8 billion business that accounts for one in eight jobs in Egypt.
The rockets were fired barely two weeks after Egyptian Interior Minister Habib Adli met with tribal leaders in a bid to ease tension and fend off Bedouin threats to sabotage oil and gas pipelines, including a natural-gas line that supplies Israel. Adli agreed to release scores of detained Bedouins, including prominent activist and blogger Mossad Abu Fajr. Some 370 Bedouin activists are believed to be lingering in Egyptian jails. Adli also promised to rollback repressive measures and initiate development projects that would create jobs in the Sinai in return for Bedouin cooperation in apprehending terrorists and fugitive Bedouin militants.
In support of Adli's promises, the Egyptian oil ministry announced that it was establishing an oil services company in the Sinai that would create jobs by drilling wells, laying pipelines and building storage tanks across the peninsula. The ministry said half of the company's employees would be local hires. Nonetheless, more radical Bedouin leaders denounced the meeting with Adli, charging that the tribal leaders he met were government appointees who did not represent the local population.
The meeting with Adli followed an ambush of police forces in which tribesmen freed Bedouin leader Salim Lafy. Two policemen were killed in the incident. Lafy and some 30 other tribesmen remain at large and have threatened to attack government installations if security forces continue to raid their homes. The tribesmen also attacked a Gaza-bound humanitarian convoy, set fire to tires near a natural gas pipeline that supplies Syria and Jordan and disrupted trade along the border with Israel.
In a letter last month to an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, fugitive Bedouin leader Moussa el-Dalah blamed the smuggling and violence on the government's treatment of the tribesmen as a security problem rather than as full-fledged citizens with economic and social grievances. "Bedouins are compelled to use violence to show that the use of excessive force to quell us will not work. The government has to find another way to deal with us if it genuinely believes we are part of a single nation with one common destiny," El-Dalah wrote. "We hear about social and economic development, but we hardly see meaning to it here in Sinai. . . . We are forced to use illicit methods to secure a livelihood for the government has left us with no alternative. Instead, it has chosen to shape our communities by handpicking our tribal chiefs and recruiting our younger men as undercover agents."