from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Good Fences Will Make Good Neighbors

August 24, 2011

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Israelis are increasingly worried about terror attacks from Sinai and rightly so. The area is quickly becoming the kind of ungoverned space that provides terrorists with their greatest opportunities. As a recent Financial Times article put it, Egypt has for decades engaged in “reckless neglect of the Sinai.” This was one of Mubarak’s “gravest sins” for “on his watch, state control over the country’s eastern gateway was dangerously eroded and its people’s relationship with central government became marked by deep mistrust and often hostility.”

The authorities in Cairo have long winked at extensive smuggling activities by the Bedouin in Sinai, partly in acknowledgment that there were few other forms of gainful employment there. Since the 2007 takeover of Gaza by Hamas, massive smuggling into Gaza has become a new and profitable business, so criminal activity of various forms is now just about the only business in Sinai except for the tourist industry in Sharm el-Sheikh. But to old-fashioned “economic” smuggling have been added both smuggling of modern weaponry to Hamas and outright terrorist actions against Israel from Sinai. Those actions come not only from Hamas but from other Palestinian Islamist groups, and that isn’t the worst news: Al Qaida is trying to build cells there, and so is Hezbollah.

This problem has been building for a long time but got worse after 2007 and worse again this year. As a result, Israel will need to construct a border fence much like the one it has built to protect against Palestinian terrorism from the West Bank.  A fence has long been planned to stop illegal immigration, but now it will need to be built faster and to be longer and stronger.

This is not a new idea: Ariel Sharon had it in 2005.

But now it must really be implemented, primarily to protect Israelis but also to protect Israeli-Egyptian relations. As we saw this week, Israeli incursions into Sinai to attack terrorists can badly complicate bilateral relations: Cairo denies that the attacks came from its territory (though no doubt the military leadership knows the truth) and gets angry when embarrassed by Israeli attacks inside Egypt. The solution is to prevent the attacks, and here Israel and Egypt have a common interest—in a strong Israeli border fence.