Thursday, August 18, 2011

Camp David revisted II

Time seemed to slide backwards today as Israelis heard the news of today's attacks down south. 

For roughly four decades now Israelis have been able to rely on a cold but seemingly durable peace treaty with Egypt to keep the south of the country mostly quiet and safe. Yes, there were occasional attacks here and there, but by and large Egypt had an interest in maintaining the treaty with Israel, and that meant keeping the peace along the border. There was no love lost between Mubarak's regime and the assorted Islamist groups seeking to destabilise Egypt through terror both within its borders and occasionally beyond them. 

There was enough mutual mistrust between Mubarak and the Bedouin of Sinai that he didn't mind ruling them with an iron hand while they in turn were often happy to support Mubarak's enemies, including Al-Qaida and affiliated groups seeking to use Sinai as a springboard for attacks on Israel. Most of these were thwarted, mostly because it was in Egypt's interest to do so - attacks on tourists in Sinai harmed one of Egypt's vital cash cows, while the peace treaty with Israel brought in much needed American aid and investment, including a substantial re-arming of the Egyptian military, as well as lucrative gas sales to Israel.

The Arab Spring seems to have turned much of this on its head. No one knows yet quite how the dust will settle, but for now enough is up in the air that Sinai appears to be reverting to a quasi-autonomous lawlessness. Some Bedouin there, never considering themselves to be fully Egyptian, are once again colluding with Islamist terror cells, either out of conviction, monetary gain or simply because it's another way of opposing Cairo. In recent months the gas pipeline to Israel has been sabotaged over and over again, while today's attacks appear to be bear out the repeated terror alerts in Sinai and warnings of increased terrorist activity in the area.

For years now there have been calls for a security fence along Israel's long porous border with the Sinai desert. Smuggling between Bedouin tribes on both sides of the border is rife including human trafficking of women for the sex trade, African migrants and refugees, drugs, arms, vehicles and domestic animals. While Egypt and Israel have tried to clamp down on this trade in recent years, the open vast stretches of open desert are difficult to seal and today's attacks are bringing renewed calls for the completion of solid barrier along the entire length of Israel's southern border.

For younger Israelis today's shootings have brought back memories of the Oslo intifada which began almost eleven years ago featuring many grisly sniping attacks on the roads of Judea and Samaria, as well as near the border with Lebanon. In their minds Eilat was meant to be immue to such things, a sort of safe haven, an escape from dark days in the centre of the country.

More than anything though the shootings today recall the early years of the state when the isolated, poorly defended wild south of the country was the frequent target of Fedayeen terrorists infiltrating from Egypt and Jordan. One of the most infamous of these attacks was the 1954 ambush at Ma'aleh Akrabim of an Egged bus travelling between Eilat and Tel Aviv. Eleven people were killed, including the driver. 

With the bus now a stationary target the gunmen boarded it to confirm that everyone had been killed, shooting the wounded and anyone who had thus far escaped. In a recent interview in the Israeli Makor Rishon newspaper survivor Miri Firstenburg described how she had been a 5 year-old girl riding that bus with her family. Both her parents were murdered, her brother so severely brain injured that he never recovered, spending the rest of his life in hospital until his death at age 40. She alone survived the attack physically unharmed. Today she campaigns for the rights of those orphaned by terror attacks, drawing on her own terrible experiences in the early years of the state.

Today terror once again came to the vital roads linking Eilat to central Israel. At the time of writing the media here are reporting on 5-7 Israelis killed and 25-31 injured. Had it not been for the actions of the bus driver, Benny Belevsky, who pressed down on the accelerator when the shooting started, today's attack could have been even worse. Thank God he was able to drive the bus to safety and avoid the fate of that other Egged bus in March of 1954.

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