FEATURE-Do fence me in: Israel closing Sinai loopholes
Mon Feb 27, 2012 12:29pm GMT
* Sinai fence aims to stop migrants, terrorists
* Runs mostly through empty desert terrain
* Israel now fenced on all sides but sea
By Douglas Hamilton
SINAI BORDER, Israel, Feb 27 (Reuters) - It may be only a "dumb" fence, but
it's a big one. Israel hopes it will protect the remote Sinai border from
infiltration by enemies exploiting the wandering ways of Bedouin tribes and
a perceived surge in lawlessness following Egypt's political upheavals.
When it is finished in 2013, the 5-metre (16-foot) high barrier of
galvanized steel bars and razor mesh -- at this stage minus the smart
electronic sensors used elsewhere -- will run most of the 266 km (165 miles)
from Eilat on the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba up to the already-closed Gaza
Strip on the Mediterranean.
For much of its course, the silvery steel fence weaves up and down among the
barren brown hills beside Route 12, a lonely two-lane blacktop through the
desert that was closed to traffic after gunmen crossed the border last
August and attacked a bus, killing eight Israelis.
On Sunday, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) announced that the fence had
already improved security to the point where Route 12 could now be reopened,
although in daylight hours only.
Like no other country in the world Israel is fenced off, to the north with
Lebanon and Syria, to the east with Jordan, in the centre by a barrier
partly of high concrete walls enclosing the occupied West Bank, and now to
the west with Egypt.
"This is a hot border now," said IDF Lt. Col Yoav Tilan at the fence, where
welders, pile-drivers and tractors were at work in the empty desert.
On the Lebanon border Israel faces a rocket threat from the Lebanese Shiite
Hezbollah movement. On the blockaded Gaza Strip a fortified front line
separates Israeli forces from Gaza's armed Palestinian Islamist group,
Hamas. The Jordan River valley is fenced and patrolled along its length.
The landmines, movement detectors and heat sensors that enhance the
protective power of Israel's border fences elsewhere are not yet installed
on the Sinai barrier. IDF Bedouin trackers daily inspect a path smoothed in
the sand for any sign of nighttime infiltrations.
"This is what we call a dumb fence. It is only one part of our defensive
suite," Tilan told reporters on a tour. "It has already been cut once. But
they didn't get through."
SINAI HAS CHANGED
Sinai was relatively quiet for 30 years, but a rapid increase in the flow of
migrants from Africa since the mid-2000s highlighted how easy it was to
cross the border.
The situation has only become worse after Egypt's revolution a year ago
relaxed the grip of the Cairo authorities on Sinai's desert tribes.
Israel's primary concern then and now is that its enemies will exploit any
security lapses. Israel says Egypt's security forces have been paying less
attention to Sinai since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February
2011, opening the door to lawlessness that helps terrorist organisations.
Israeli military authorities say Palestinian militants in Gaza, led by Hamas
but including Islamic Jihad, are trying to use the peninsula as a back door.
"The fence is part of a security concept intended to stop infiltrations
and terror activity in the country," said Brig-Gen Eran Ofir, who heads the
1.3-billion-shekel ($380-million) project. It was first authorised in Jan.
2010 but construction began only in November of that year.
On Aug. 18, 2011, eight Israelis were killed on Route 12 by militants who
crossed the unfenced border with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled
grenades. Three attackers and five Egyptian soldiers were killed in the
ensuing gunbattle with the IDF, igniting furious protests outside the
Israeli embassy in Cairo.
The IDF says Palestinian gunmen carried out the attack.
"We believe there are other groups with the same plans right now. We could
face another terror attack at any time," said an Israeli commander who
briefed reporters at the IDF's regional command post on Route 12. "There is
a constantly increasing threat from the Western border, turning into a
hostile terror threat."
The IDF says it must treat any criminal activity on the border initially as
a terrorist threat. Last Wednesday, it said a border patrol chased off
smugglers and found a bomb.
"A smuggling attempt was identified, and the force that operated to stop the
smuggling identified a man hurling a suspicious bag and escaping from the
scene," the IDF said. "It was discovered the bag contained a powerful
This was a reminder that smuggling routes over the border "are constantly
being used by terror organizations", it said.
There have been no lethal attacks since August, however.
The commander, who asked not to be named, said cooperation with Egypt is
good. Liaison officers talk daily and commanders meet in person every two
weeks or so. But Israel hopes that as Egypt is stabilized, it will put more
into policing the desert.
Israel says while it has increased manpower on the border, Egypt's force is
two battalions below permitted strength.
"The quality of intelligence is very low," the officer said.
BORDER MOSTLY EMPTY
Some 55,000 migrants have entered Israel from Sinai since 2006, and the flow
is accelerating. In all of 2006 there were 2,777. In the past quarter they
averaged about 2,500 per month.
People-smugglers equipped with 4x4s and night-vision scopes deliver them to
the rocky ridges north of Eilat. They make no effort to escape once they
reach Israel but surrender to the IDF, hoping to be processed as asylum
The Israeli commander said 90 percent of Africans infiltrating Israel are
economic migrants seeking a better life. Many of the migrants are educated
city dwellers with skills and even professional qualifications, he said.
Their journeys are well organized by companies specializing in the trade and
typically begin with a flight from Eritrea to Cairo, from where they cross
the Suez Canal by road into the Sinai peninsula, completing the final trip
to the border over desert tracks at night. It takes about two and a half
"The Bedouin smugglers are excellent drivers by day or night. They can
outrun us in most places and they know the terrain very well," the commander
Thousands of migrants in legal limbo gravitate to the gray economy of the
interior. Israel recently adopted stiff penalties to deter the influx,
permitting detention for up to three years, to make the point that the
country is not a soft route to Europe.
Ahmed Youssuf, 23, is one migrant who got in under the wire, arriving two
months ago from Sudan, he says. He already has a job -- as a welder on the
fence. (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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Received on Mon Feb 27 2012 - 17:30:42 EST