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How Israel’s Gaza Pullout Radicalized Sinai

Anyone who still thinks more Israel territorial withdrawals are a good idea should carefully study Ehud Yaari’s chilling new report for The Washington Institute on “Sinai: A New Front.” To anyone who has been following the situation, Yaari’s bottom line – that Sinai-based terrorism “could break a fragile bilateral peace [with Egypt] that is already challenged by growing post-Mubarak demands to abrogate, review, or amend the treaty” – isn’t new; I’ve been warning of this for months. Where the veteran Israeli journalist and Arabist makes a real contribution is his analysis of how Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza contributed to Sinai’s radicalization. And while he doesn’t say so, the implication of his research is obvious: An Israeli pullout from the West Bank could similarly radicalize and destabilize Jordan.

Clearly, radicalization doesn’t happen overnight, and Yaari indeed describes a slow spread of radical Islam among the Sinai Bedouin since the 1980s, along with a consequent rise in arms trafficking and terror. But Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, “and subsequent removal of troops from the Sinai-Gaza border,” catalyzed the process:

As Bedouin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it, “a fireball started rolling into the peninsula.” Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk. Sympathy and support for the Palestinian battle against Israel grew; according to al-Anani, the closer one got to the Gaza border, “the more people are inclined toward Hamas.” In short, despite then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s quiet hope that Cairo would assume unofficial responsibility for Gaza affairs, the Israeli withdrawal instead allowed Hamas to export its influence into Egyptian territory.

Facilitated by the dramatic increase in the number of tunnels—which numbered no less than 1,200 at their peak—the expansion of Hamas and other Palestinian activities in the Sinai was unprecedented. In fact, the arms flow was often reversed, with weapons going from Gaza to the Sinai. During the revolution, for example, observers noted a huge demand for firearms in the peninsula. And even in late 2010, well before Mubarak’s ouster, Hamas was already in the process of transferring heavy long-range missiles to secret storage places in the Sinai, including Grad rockets and extended-range Qassams…

Today, a significant number of Hamas military operatives are permanently stationed in the Sinai, serving as recruiters, couriers, and propagators of the Hamas platform. A solid network of the group’s contact men, safe houses, and armories covers much of the peninsula … In addition, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other factions have been moving some of their explosives workshops—which produce homemade missiles, rockets, mortars, improvised explosive devices, and so forth—from Gaza to the Sinai in recent months. In many ways, the Sinai has already become a sort of hinterland for Hamas military forces in Gaza. Dual-purpose materials used for the production of explosives are regularly transferred to the peninsula, allowing the group to place a significant part of its military industry beyond Israel’s reach.

As in Gaza, an Israeli pullout from the West Bank could easily end in a Hamas takeover. True, the Palestinian Authority is protected by American-trained troops, but the same U.S. general, Keith Dayton, trained the PA forces in Gaza, and Hamas routed them in a week during its 2007 coup.

Moreover, like Sinai, Jordan already has both a homegrown Islamist movement and some serious stability issues. Additionally, Jordan is roughly two-thirds Palestinian, and its Palestinian citizens have close ties of kinship and friendship with West Bank Palestinians. Thus, radicalization on the West Bank would likely spread to Jordan quickly if Israeli troops were no longer serving as a buffer between the two.

So if Western leaders think a radicalized, destabilized Jordan is a good idea, they should by all means keep pushing an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. But if not, they should be praying that Israel stays put.



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