While many have reported on the recent terror attacks on the Sinai border between Egypt and Israel, few have reported on two aspects of the fallout of this Islamist campaign. Until last summer, when a similar group of local Sinai Bedouin crossed the border and attacked Eilat, few in the Israeli intelligence apparatus had Sinai on their radar. But now it is there with a vengeance. With crisis comes opportunity for bold, ambitious military-intelligence operatives.
The question is who will take responsibility for combatting the terror threat represented by Sinai Islamist militants. Traditionally, the Shin Bet would take primary control of such matters. But given that the terror attacks are trans-national, the army can make an argument that it should be responsible. This is not a matter of dry jurisdictional bureaucratic matters. There’s gold in them thar hills. In 2007, just after George Bush allocated $400-million for covert ops to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, Ehud Olmert added $500-million to the Mossad’s operating budget. Though I don’t know how government-to-government transfers operate, it wouldn’t shock me at all to discover that a substantial portion of the Bush funding ended up financing not just the Mossad in general, but its terror campaign against Iran including attacks against its nuclear scientists and cyber-attacks against its nuclear plants.
So you see, any agency which wins the battle to take over the Sinai counter-terror beat stands to reap a huge budgetary windfall.
There is another major problem with policing the Sinai. Egypt should be responsible. But it’s out-of-date peace treaty with Israel only allows it to maintain a single brigade to cover the entire huge peninsula. A recent upgrade has allowed the Egyptians to station two brigades. But considering the threat posed by Al Qaeda elements supposedly migrating there to start terror activities against Israel and Egypt itself, this is a paltry military-police presence. Unless Israel rapidly changes its tune, the Sinai will become a no-man’s land.
But Israeli forces are prepared to fill the vacuum. I’ve predicted here an expanded Israeli counter-terror operation in Sinai replete with the sorts of drone, helicopter and F-16 attacks Israel now uses in Gaza and has used elsewhere like Lebanon. Israel will care very little for the niceties of sovereign borders. It never did in Lebanon, nor has it ever in the Palestinian territories. The only time Israel honors borders is when a country is powerful enough to stand in its way. Currently, Israel doesn’t find Egypt such a nation.
Israel, on the other hand, doesn’t take kindly to violation of its own sovereignty by foreigners, who are routinely designated as “infiltrators,” even if they’re civilians. Along the Lebanon and Syria border, the IDF murdered a score of protesters who tried to cross it during the Naksa last year. I guess what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander…
In a related matter, IDF soldiers have reported that they’ve actually been stationed and patrolled in Egyptian territory. They’ve apprehended within Egypt hundreds of African migrants who’ve crossed the desert to find asylum inside Israel. After detaining them, the IDF hands them over to Egyptian forces. Here is an affadavit by such a solider testifying to the IDF practice of violating Egyptian sovereignty.
Here is the original July report Haaretz published (Hebrew) about this story, which didn’t refer specifically to cross-border patrols.
The AP tells of Israeli human rights NGOs which received reports directly from IDF personnel who were alarmed by their assignment. The groups decried this new practice:
The report, released Friday by Amnesty International and several Israeli groups, including Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that Israeli soldiers have entered several hundred meters (yards) into Egyptian territory to catch migrants and hand them over to Egyptian police.
The three rights group called on Israel to stop the practice, saying it was aimed at preventing migrants from entering Israel, where the government would then have to consider their claims of asylum. The groups said repatriating asylum seekers who might be in danger in their home countries is a violation of international law.
My source has attempted to ascertain whether there is a military censor’s gag on reporting this story. Though there doesn’t appear to be a formal one, Yediot’s Telem Yahav did original reporting, but was refused permission to publish. Though several Israeli soldiers had come forward to Yahav to confirm aspects of the story, the censor gagged the report. The censor can’t legally prevent Israeli media from reporting about the AP story. But it can gag stories whose information originates inside Israel. An incredibly pernicious system. The next time one of those hasbara boosters like Alan Dershowitz boasts about Israeli freedom of the press, tell ’em a thing or two. The IDF clearly does not like this story and wants it to disappear.
Part of the reason is that the practice of “Hot Returns,” which the IDF is using not only a violation of international law, but in direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling, which warned the IDF against it. But as in the case of moving the Separation Wall and so many other cases, the IDF considers Supreme Court rulings advisory rather than mandatory.
The AP lays out the truly disturbing aspects of it in terms of bi-lateral relations between Israel and Egypt:
The use of Israeli soldiers just inside Egyptian territory, with apparent Egyptian consent, would be a startling move, given widespread anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians and the strong sensitivities over Sinai, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and returned after the 1979 peace deal between the two countries.
The IDF is making a calculation that intercepting foreign migrants is more important to Israel than any domestic fallout within Egypt that could further poison relations. Personally, I think that’s a very dangerous calculation to make, one that could blow up in Israel’s face. Recall that after Israel invaded Egyptian territory and killed five Egyptian border policemen, protesters burned down the Israeli embassy. The Egyptian media has begun to pick up on the story.
In the AP report, the IDF spokesperson lies in claiming:
The Israeli military spokesman’s office said it would not confirm or deny the specific report…but…added, “In line with protocol Israeli military activity is within Israel.”
…It said Israeli soldiers have stopped groups several times and held them “until the arrival of Egyptian forces that took the infiltrators,” but did not comment on where this took place.
Clearly, he is not defining interdiction of foreign migrants by the IDF as a military activity. But in truth any activity by the IDF is ipso facto, military activity, including this. Israel is treating with disdain the notion of territorial sovereignty.
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Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.