by Adam Gonn
JERUSALEM, Aug. 23 (Xinhua) -- In the aftermath of last week's attacks in which eight Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants while traveling on a road along the Egyptian border, both Israel and Egypt turned their attention to the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.
The attacks were reportedly carried out by 15 to 20 Palestinian militants who reached the road by tunneling out of Gaza before crossing the now-anarchic Sinai, and doubling back into Israeli territory 200 kilometers further south.
But Israel's political echelon isn't keen to ramp up military operations against Gaza, owing in part to hanging onto even a tenuous connection to the government in Cairo.
"The situation requires patience; the event needs to be viewed in a wider context," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, a government source told Xinhua.
The attack "was an attempt to harm Israeli-Egyptian relations," Barak said, adding that "most of the attackers are dead, and most of those who sent them, at the highest levels, are buried."
Many regional analysts believe that although Israel doesn't have many other options than allowing Egypt to strengthen its presence to stabilize Sinai, the Jewish state is taking a risk of reestablishing a strategic threat.
The minimal control over Sinai that Cairo asserted since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, dropped even further with former President Hosni Mubarak's downfall in February, and the apparent inability or even abdication of responsibility towards policing the peninsula.
According to the agreement, Israel in 1982 evacuated all its military bases and settlements from Sinai, which it had captured in the 1967 war, and returned it to Egypt in exchange for the area becoming a demilitarized zone with only a limited number of Egyptian troops deployed.
During Mubarak's rule, Egyptian forces were focused on maintaining control over the border with Gaza and in the resorts along the Red Sea, leaving the Bedouin tribes in the center of the peninsula to, practically speaking, rule themselves.
Despite a number of hesitant forays into Sinai villages to reassert Cairo's authority and make a stab at running off a melange of jihadist groups inimical to Mubarak and the now-ruling military, the vast region was largely abandoned to its own devices.
Israeli and western security agencies and analysts both said the area was becoming a staging ground for Islamist attacks against both Israel, and the Egyptian leadership.
In addition to the cross-border attacks last Thursday, the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been hit by sabotage bombing attempts no less than five times since Mubarak resigned.
In a bid to thwart the deterioration security situation, the Egyptian government on Monday announced plans to establish a Supreme Authority for the Development of Sinai in hopes of improving security and encouraging investment.
BEEFING UP SECURITY
Prior to last week's attacks, Israel twice allowed Egypt to deploy more and better equipped troops in Sinai than was permitted according to the peace treaty to deal with the increased lawlessness. However, voices are now being heard in Israel calling to amend the peace treaty so that Egypt could deploy even more soldiers to patrol the wasteland.
"In the past, there was complete opposition to this, but new voices are being heard of late and the matter is no longer being rejected out of hand," a senior Israeli Defense Forces officer said, according to a government source.
Barak believes that "Egypt's control of the Sinai isn't always total, and there have been additional attempts by terrorists to operate from there," according to the source.
"We'll work with the Egyptians; we're in contact with them at the highest levels," Barak said.
Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said that in addition to the recent deployment of Egyptian troops which consisted of three battalions equipped with armored personnel carriers and tanks, Israel also allowed more Egyptian troops during the Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008.
"Israel is quite flexible because it understands the challenges the new regime is facing in trying to stabilize the situation," Karmon said.
To explain the significance of the loss of control on Sinai by Cairo, Karmon pointed to a recent attack by 200 insurgents in broad daylight at a police station in the city of Al-Arish, an important port city on the Mediterranean side of Sinai, and the site of one of the pipeline's pumping stations.
Karmon added that it's important for the Egyptian regime to deal with the dire economic situation in Sinai, and not just with security issues. He believes there is a strong feeling of marginalization among the Bedouin, due to the fact that the majority of workers in most government projects are transferred to the region from major cities across the Suez Canal -- leaving the locals unemployed.
During the Mubarak era, Israel-Egypt relations on the government level were strong, despite oft-voiced disdain and even hatred for Israel among the Egyptian people. However, after the president was forced out of power many of the anti-Israeli politicians and groups that were held back by Mubarak are now among the leading candidates for seats in parliament and for the presidency.
Israel will just have to live with the difficulty in predicting how bilateral relations might develop once the interim military council, which took control after Mubarak stepped down, hands over power to a civilian administration, according to Karmon, primarily "because Israel understands that the situation in Sinai is very serious and a direct threat to Israel."
"We have to take this risk and allow Egypt to beef up its forces, in the hope that it won't be a future military -- and not only terrorist - threat to Israel," Karmon said.
Amir Rapaport, a former military correspondent with the Israeli Yedioth Ahronot daily, said that from Israel's point of view, the government has no choice other than to allow the Egyptians to deploy more forces in the Sinai.
"It's in Israel's interest that Egypt do something against the terror groups in Sinai," Rapaport said.
However, it's also very important that the Egyptians are only allowed to do so in coordination with Israel, and that Egyptians aren't permitted to station more troops on a permanent basis in Sinai, he averred.
"The principle is that Sinai is a zone without any military forces, no tanks and sophisticated weapons," Rapaport said.
The fact that Sinai is empty is very important for the Israeli military, he added, because they know that they have time to organize forces -- if the peace agreement were to be annulled and Egypt turn more hostile.
In any case, Israeli defense and civilian planners are now seriously considering the ramifications of a tactical and strategic reassessment of the mutual border.