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Sinai Spinning out of Cairo’s Grip, Creating Major Headaches for Israel

Israel's security establishment does not need much reminding of how easily and quickly the south can heat up and cause very serious problems.
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Recently, we wrote here about the great landmass on Israel’s southwestern border that “given its physical proximity to Israel, Sinai is not only an Egyptian challenge. That it gets such a small degree of media attention is a puzzle.” [See "Egypt's Sinai problem and ours"]

Since then, there has been a new set of Sinai developments to absorb. Under the headline “Islamist gunmen kill three Egyptian policemen in the Sinai | Assailants ambush cops in El-Arish, shout ‘God is great,’ then flee“, a Times of Israel report says “suspected Islamic militants” carried out an ambush in the northern Sinai today, Saturday, murdering three Egyptian policemen.

The gunmen pulled in front of a police vehicle in an unmarked truck in the area’s main city of El-Arish, before standing up on the truck bed and opening fire, the officials said. They then raised a black flag associated with jihadis and shouted “God is great.” Intelligence officials said the suspects then sped off. The head of security in northern Sinai, Ahmed Bakr, confirmed that three policemen were killed in the Saturday attack. The incident was the most serious since terror cells killed 16 Egyptian security personnel in an attack near the Egypt-Israel-Gaza border in August. Since then, the government of President Mohammed Morsi has moved to try to quash the cells in the unstable Sinai Peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. [More]

Even before that terror attack, Britain’s Foreign Office had issued an elevated terror threat level warning for the Sinai on Friday. The British are advising against all but essential travel to the peninsula. They say [according to Daily News Egypt] that ”the terror threat level has risen from ‘general’ to ‘high’ in response to a number of incidents in the Sinai.  There are also reports that police in the Sinai thwarted a terrorist plot organised by Al-Qaeda last week.”

The Wall Street Journal happens to have run a serious investigative article on Friday dealing with events behind the scenes in Sinai, and focusing on El-Arish, scene of today’s shootings. WSJ’s Matt Bradley writes

["Makeshift Islamic Courts Fill Void in the Sinai"] about the Sinai phenomenon of “a fast-expanding network of unofficial courts meting out Islamic law” in Egyptian Sinai.

“The rise of such Shariah courts is one measure of just how far the remote Sinai Peninsula has drifted from Cairo’s orbit and into the hands of fundamentalists intent on imposing a strict form of religious order.

The revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak and his secular-leaning regime early last year emptied this vast desert region of police and most normal government services, leaving a rush of kidnappings, smuggling and terrorism in its wake.

Partly filling the justice void are judges such as Sheikh Abu Faisal, who punish offenders with fasting periods instead of prison sentences and levy fines paid in camels rather than cash…

Shariah courts have a centuries-long presence in Sinai as arbitrators over small disputes in which contesting parties agree to follow the judges’ verdicts, say legal experts and local politicians.

But since the revolution, and with the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, that system of mixed tribal and religious justice has begun to expand its role…

The Shariah judges’ expanding ambitions threatened state sovereignty in the mostly rural Sinai Peninsula, a regional flash point bordering Israel and the Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip…

The government tolerates but doesn’t monitor the Shariah courts, said Ministry of Judiciary spokesman Ibrahim Abdel Khaleq. While Cairo hasn’t acted to tamp them down, Mr. Khaleq said their expansion “could be dangerous” if they challenge state authority…

Some legal activists in Cairo said they were concerned about the proliferation of Shariah courts in Sinai because of their radical outlook.

They offer no appeals, women’s testimony holds half the weight of men’s and some Shariah judges, including Sheik Beek, say they hope one day to impose Islamic hudud – punishments such as stoning for adultery and cutting off the hands of thieves.”

Al Arabiya’s coverage of today’s El-Arish terrorist killings points out what all of this implies for Israel’s security and safety:

“On September 8, an Egyptian official said there were about 225 tunnels in Sinai, 31 of which were destroyed. The tunnels are used to smuggle various kinds of products into the besieged Gaza Strip and the Egyptian authorities have often turned a blind eye to the cross border activity. Efforts to impose central authority in the lawless desert region are complicated by the indigenous Bedouin population’s ingrained hostility to the government in Cairo.”

Israel’s security establishment does not need much reminding of how easily and quickly the south can heat up and cause very serious problems.

Visit This Ongoing War.

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About the Author: Frimet and Arnold Roth began writing and speaking publicly soon after the murder of their fifteen year-old daughter Malki Z"L in the Jerusalem Sbarro massacre, August 9, 2001 (Chaf Av, 5761). They have both been, and are, frequently interviewed for radio, television and the print media, including CNN, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and others. Their blog This Ongoing War deals with the under-appreciated price of living in a society afflicted by terrorism which, they contend, means the entire world. Frimet is a native of Queens, NY while her husband was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. They brought their family to settle in Jerusalem in 1988. They co-founded the Malki Foundation in 2001 and are deeply involved in its work as volunteers. They can be reached at thisoingoingwar@gmail.com .


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