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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 2, 2005

Q. Why is the IDF deploying elite units to the Egyptian border? Q. Where does Syria's Lebanon withdrawal leave Israel's northern security concerns?

The views of Yossi Alpher, Israeli Security Expert, do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.


Q. Why is the IDF deploying elite units to the normally quiet Israeli-Egyptian border? How is this linked to the Palestinian issue?

A. The units are being deployed because the IDF is alarmed at the growing scope of arms smuggling from Egyptian Sinai into the Negev, and from there by Israeli Bedouin couriers across the Negev and into the West Bank. Israel's attempts to reduce the smuggling, in turn, reflect both a pessimistic assessment regarding the prospect of new violence with the Palestinians, and the complicated nature of Israeli-Egyptian negotiations regarding terrorist and criminal activities emanating from Sinai.

There is a growing fear among some circles in IDF Intelligence and the Shabak (General Security Service, "Shin Bet") that the disengagement will be followed by the outbreak of a third intifada. If this happens, the violence will emanate from the West Bank alone, with Gaza remaining quiet. This will reflect an assessment on the part of militant Palestinian elements that President Mahmoud Abbas is unable to "deliver" a comprehensive peace process with Israel, and that the withdrawal from Gaza is an Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism. According to this logic, Gaza will remain quiet to show that withdrawal is the desired response from the Palestinian standpoint and will be rewarded, while the West Bank will explode with violence with the aim of inducing an additional unilateral Israeli withdrawal there or, alternatively, a peace process designed to produce a viable Palestinian state.

One development that has fed this IDF assessment in recent weeks is the concerted attempt by militants in Nablus and Jenin to produce a working Qassam-type rocket and mortar bombs that can be fired from within the West Bank against Israeli population centers along the coast (Netanya, Hadera, Tel Aviv suburbs) and in the Jezreel and Bet Shean Valley region (Afula, Bet Shean)--towns that are protected by the fence against suicide bombings. A second is the escalation in arms smuggling across the Negev and into the West Bank; the arms either enter the Hebron area, where there is no fence as yet, or are transported via the Dead Sea region to the eastern approaches of the northern West Bank.

Two caveats to this assessment are relevant here. First, the IDF too is taking advantage of the current ceasefire to prepare for another round. The phenomenon of exploiting a ceasefire in order to rearm and retrain is not peculiar only to the Palestinians, and does not necessarily reflect a desire to start another intifada, but rather the inclination of all armed forces to gear up for worst case scenarios.

Secondly, the assessment assumes there will be no progress toward a peace process following disengagement, thereby generating new Palestinian militancy. This may well be the case, but it is not written in stone, particularly if US President Bush becomes more deeply involved in the fall of 2005 and (assuming the ceasefire is holding and Abbas is making progress with reforms) pressures Israeli PM Sharon to make additional roadmap concessions and commit either to peace talks or to a second, expansive disengagement in the West Bank. Either of these moves would undercut the Palestinian militants' logic of launching another intifada.

As for the Egyptian aspects of the IDF deployment, they are part of a broader negotiation with Cairo, led by the Israel Defense Ministry. This began with a discussion of the Egyptian initiative to deploy 750 troops along the 12 km. (8 mile) long Sinai-Gaza border at Rafah in order to help stop arms smuggling by tunnel under the border, facilitate Israel's withdrawal and ensure that Gaza remains tranquil and under PLO/PA rule after disengagement. It has now expanded to include discussion of an Egyptian proposal to deploy an additional 3,000 troops, with armored vehicles, along the entire 250 km. (156 mile) length of the Sinai-Negev border from Rafah to Eilat/Taba, to deal with the arms smuggling on this front as well.

The Sinai-Negev border, unlike that at Rafah, is not fortified and is marked by a rickety waist-high fence. Until recently it witnessed smuggling mainly of narcotics and Eastern European prostitutes bound for the Tel Aviv massage parlors, with Israeli goods going the other way. But in recent months the prospect of disengagement from Gaza has generated increased trafficking in arms as well. Israel beefed up its efforts to interdict the smuggling several years ago, partially in response to international criticism that it was abetting traffic in human slavery. It even deployed units made up mainly of women combat troops to interdict the prostitutes, their Bedouin guides and the Israeli criminal elements who "imported" them. Already the border features manned air patrols, drones, and sophisticated cameras. Yet this effort has proven insufficient with regard to the arms traffic. Hamas and Islamic Jihad infiltrators have recently been apprehended at the border, and al-Qaeda incursions are anticipated. After the Gaza disengagement, more elite forces will be deployed in the border area, and new fences and deep ditch obstacles are planned.

While the Defense Ministry is moving toward accommodating the Egyptian troop deployments in Sinai, the issue has raised considerable controversy in some IDF and political circles in Israel. Critics of this new Egyptian-Israeli military cooperation argue that Egypt has deliberately allowed and even encouraged the arms smuggling precisely with the aim of obliging Israel to accept the Egyptian troop deployments along the Israeli border. Egypt's long-term strategic objectives, according to this analysis, are to erode away at the Sinai demilitarization provisions and eventually restore full Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai, and eventually to develop a military option against Israel. To this end, MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), a Netanyahu supporter and disengagement opponent who chairs the influential Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, has produced a legal opinion to the effect that the deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai requires the Knesset to approve an amendment to the military annex of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The critics believe they can thwart the move to introduce Egyptian forces by a Knesset vote.

Advocates of the Egyptian deployment, on the other hand, ridicule the fears expressed by Steinitz and others as paranoid. They argue that 3,000 Egyptian infantrymen do not constitute either a military threat or a dangerous precedent. While they acknowledge that Egypt has been lax in patrolling its borders with Israel, they cite two reasons for this. First, the demilitarization provisions of the peace treaty, which Egypt generally observes to the letter (as does Israel), have indeed constrained Egypt's capacity to deploy the necessary numbers of quality troops along the border.

Secondly, Egypt makes no secret of its support for the Palestinian cause and its criticism of many of Israel's military measures against Palestinians. While it hasn't acknowledged looking the other way when arms were smuggled, the implications of the Egyptian position are obvious. Until now, Egypt has not shared Jordan's sensitivity to the spillover of the Palestinian struggle, hence has not bothered to patrol its border with Palestine with the kind of ardor demonstrated by the Jordanians in the Jordan Valley. Now, the prospect of an Islamist "Hamastan" emerging in Gaza after withdrawal, coupled with Egypt's own renewed concern regarding Islamic terrorist attacks in Cairo and elsewhere, change that consideration. If Egypt is finally prepared to make an effort to prevent arms smuggling directly into Gaza and indirectly into the West Bank, Israel should welcome the move.

The broader strategic backdrop to these developments is a radical change in the way Israelis are looking at the strategic implications of territory. With regard to the Palestinian issue, considerations of demography, i.e., maintaining Israel as a Jewish state, are increasingly given priority over considerations of territory, i.e., the settlements. With regard to Egypt, the reasons for demilitarizing Sinai back in 1979--separating the Israeli and Egyptian armies and preventing another war between them--now pale in comparison to the need for Egyptian-Israeli military cooperation to prevent the arming of Palestinian militants and to facilitate disengagement.


Q. Where does completion of the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon leave Israel's security concerns in the north?

A. Not only Israel, but even UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has voiced concern that Syria and Lebanon still have a lot to do before being judged in compliance with UNSCR 1559. While Syrian troops and military installations have been withdrawn, Annan has expressed concern that elements of Syrian intelligence control over Lebanon are still in place, to say nothing of the militias--Hizballah and Palestinian groups--that remain to be disarmed.

Israeli security sources are generally pleased with the Syrian military withdrawal and the prospect of elections in Lebanon on May 29, though some had argued before the withdrawal that a measure of Syrian control in Lebanon was preferable for Israel compared to the anarchy that might now return to the country. In the near term, too, following the Syrian withdrawal Israel will be hard put to blame Syria, and even retaliate against Syrian targets, if and when Hizballah's armed provocations from Lebanon become intolerable.

Annan (once again, uniquely though not deliberately, reflecting Israeli concerns) has also noted the need for sovereign Lebanese control to be extended to the south of the country. There, Hizballah continues to reign supreme, with the pro-Syrian Lebanese government arguing lamely that the Shi'ite force is carrying out a national mission by fighting to liberate the Shaba Farms region on the slopes of Mt. Hermon (Israel, backed by the UN, argues that Shaba is Syrian, not Lebanese territory). This points to the critical issues that the next Lebanese government will have to address if it is both to fulfill 1559 and to improve the security atmosphere with Israel: disarm Hizballah, particularly its huge arsenal of improved katyusha rockets that threaten the Galilee; reduce not only Syrian but Iranian influence (Iranian Revolutionary Guards remain in the Beka'a region, where they train and guide Hizballah); and redeploy the Lebanese Army to the south.

Accordingly, the challenge now for the US and the UN is to maintain the pressure on Syria and on pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon, ensure that the next Lebanese government is, for the first time in 29 years, not a puppet of Damascus, then help guide it to stability. All the while they must maintain the pressure on the Assad regime, which is currently very much on the defensive, to initiate genuine radical reforms. If these objectives are not addressed, events and actors in Lebanon will continue to be manipulated by Damascus, and Israel's security concerns will remain. Indeed, they could be exacerbated if Lebanon slides back into the anarchy and civil war that characterized the years preceding the Syrian intervention.

On the other hand, if its concerns are addressed, Israel may confront a legitimate Arab demand, backed by the United States, to enter a peace process with its two northern neighbors.