With Egypt in turmoil, Israel builds fence to keep out trouble

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2012 

EILAT, Israel — Sparks flew across the desert sand as Mohammad Omar welded barbed wire to the top of a 16-foot fence that winds its way across the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Against the brown and tan landscape, the gleaming white metal of the fence stands out, an ominous warning to those attempting to cross into Israel.

"We have been working here for several months. By the end of the year we will be finished," Omar said, confirming a timeline that Israel's defense minister had announced earlier.

Concerned about turmoil in Egypt and what Israeli military officials say is a rising threat along the country's southern border, Israel has embarked on building an iron barrier that will stretch nearly 140 miles from the Taba border crossing on the Red Sea north through the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip and the Mediterranean. It will be the largest man-made object in the largely unoccupied desert.

Israeli military officials, providing a tour of the fence this week, said the threat along the country's southern border with Egypt now was "as high as we have seen it."

"There are groups in Sinai right now planning terror attacks," the commander of the military unit assigned to defend the southern border said in a briefing. Under the conditions of the presentation, he couldn't be identified.

"There is criminal activity, smuggling, that is linked to the terrorism and can be used by them," he said.

Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a year ago, the Sinai peninsula has become a largely lawless area.

Zeinab Abdo, a 31-year-old mother of five who lives in a village outside Al Arish in the Sinai, said that years of mistreatment at the hands of Egyptian soldiers and police had led to chaos in the wake of the revolution.

"They were here everywhere, and now they're not," she said. "Everyone else is doing what they want now while they can."

Egyptian news reports claim that al Qaida and other groups have taken advantage of the decline in security to create bases in the Sinai.

The vast deserts and punishing terrain make policing the Sinai "a nightmare," Israeli officials said. They were quick to add, however, that they thought Egyptian authorities were "doing their best and have the full trust of the Israeli military."

Israeli officials have been careful to express support of Egypt's military sovereignty over the Sinai, and to dispel rumors that Israel is planning on launching a military operation to take back the territory, which it held from 1973 to 1979 before a peace treaty with Egypt was signed.

"We meet with Egyptian officers every few weeks and daily talk," the commander said. "Our coordination is very good."

The commander said tensions have calmed since last August, when a group from Sinai crossed into Israel to launch a series of attacks that killed eight Israelis. In an ensuing gunfight, Israeli soldiers shot and killed five Egyptian border guards, setting off a diplomatic row that was quelled only after Israel apologized for the guards' deaths.

The entire incident took place within eyesight of where Omar was welding together Israel's newest barrier.

"They are pushing us to work quickly," he said.

Omar's work on the fence carries its own irony.

Among the ills Israel hopes the fence will cure is the daily influx of Africans who use the Sinai border to make their way from Egypt into Israel. What began with a small stream of several hundred refugees from Southern Sudan in early 2005 has mushroomed into thousands who arrive each month from across Africa.

Omar is one of those, a refugee from South Sudan who paid Bedouin smugglers $3,000 two years ago to bring him into Israel. Israeli authorities held him briefly, he said, but he's since been able to find steady work in construction and agriculture.

"For the others who want to come, too bad," he said, expressing little sympathy for the refugees who could be kept from crossing into Israel once the fence is complete. "Maybe they will dig underneath it or come over it. They will find a way in if they want."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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