February 7, 2011
Concern rising along the Israel-Egypt border
Driving along the Israel-Egypt border near this southern Israeli town, rusted metal posts strung with barbed wire give way to sand dunes and an exposed, open border as wide open as the question of what will become of the countries’ relations now that Egypt is in turmoil.
During a break between border patrols, which have been stepped up since the recent protests in Egypt began, a few Israeli soldiers climbing into a Hummer say they have been told to be on alert for possible trouble.
But for now, the same quiet borne of 32 years of a cold but functional peace prevails.
“It’s a very quiet border and we never expected it to continue being anything else but quiet,” said Sigalit Efrat, 36, who moved to Be’er Milka, overlooking the Egyptian border, eight years ago.
Efrat and her husband came here from the Golan Heights, Israeli territory disputed by Syria, seeking life in an agricultural community in a seemingly more stable part of Israel.
“You can never know what will be, but it’s in everyone’s interest to keep things calm,” said Sigalit’s husband, Adi Efrat, who grows pomegranates and lilies here, mostly for export to Europe.
He was referring not only to the Israeli and Egyptian governments, but Bedouin smugglers who make brisk business smuggling migrant workers and refugees across the border. They also run a lucrative sideline trafficking in drugs and women.
For the residents of the five Israeli villages near the Egyptian border, the mood is watchful waiting.
Last week, a group of Chinese migrants were found hiding in the greenhouses of the Kadesh Barnea, the Israeli town nearest the border. Residents shrug it off as nothing new.
What is new, they note, is the behavior of the Egyptian soldiers manning the border. They are no longer facing Israel but toward the vast expanse of the Sinai Peninsula on their own side.
Menachm Zafrir, a farmer at Kadesh Barnea who for 25 years served as its civilian security chief, offered his own commentary Feb. 4 just hours after Egyptian Bedouin used rocket-propelled grenades to attack an Egyptian state security office in the northern Sinai.
“They have changed direction to make sure the Bedouin don’t slaughter them,” Zafrir said of the Egyptian soldiers.
Reports in Israeli media say that Egyptian soldiers are building reinforced gun positions on the rooftops of their border outposts to cope with possible attacks.
The Bedouin may want a modicum of quiet along the border to keep their smuggling business afloat, but they also harbor aggression against the Egyptian authorities, who they say have discriminated against them and mistreated them for years.
Israeli authorities fear the Bedouin will help smuggle weapons and militants into Gaza and Israel.
The 166-mile Israel-Egypt border has been Israel’s quietest front since the historic peace accord between the countries was signed in 1979 after Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai. The absence of a the threat of a mobilizing Egyptian army meant Israel did not have to concern itself with defending its longest border—even when it went to war against Lebanon in 1982 or, more recently, against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008.
The peace meant Israel could leave most of the border without a fence. Last year, however, a growing number of African migrants sneaking across the border prompted the Israeli government to begin construction of a fence.
Zafrir, 53, who settled Kadesh Barnea along with several others who, like him, had been evacuated from an Israeli settlement of the same name in Sinai, drives along the narrow paved border road in his white pickup truck.
His mother is Egyptian and grew up in Cairo. He grew up speaking Arabic at home and says he has been to Cairo dozens of times for business.
“I feel very much at home there,” Zafrir said. “What will happen there now depends entirely on which way the politics of it all goes. The people themselves are good people.”
As he drives on the road he speaks of the unpleasant uncertainty of what’s next.
“We are the soft underbelly of the border,” he said, noting the vulnerability of his town and the cluster of other Israeli villages.
Because of their isolated location, if there are security problems of any kind it is the army, not the far-away police, that are on call. Some local residents, all trained soldiers, are part of a first-response civilian team with access to army-issued weapons in a time of emergency.
Israeli soldiers were stationed here for the first time following the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza amid concerns that the security calculus might have changed. But the area has been quiet, for the most part.
“I like the peacefulness here, the endless views, the virginity of the place,” Zafrir said, driving up a rocky slope to an overlook. “This place has become my life’s work.”
Casting his gaze toward the Egyptian soldiers at a mustard-colored outpost about 300 yards away, he said, “They must be confused. They don’t know what will be.”
Zafrir’s neighbor, Moshe Gini, 52, does not know what will become of his job. Since the riots began in Egypt, he has been staying home, unable to go to work driving trucks into Israel from Egypt that are loaded with carbonated gas used for making beverages.
Before the unrest Gini would go to the nearby Nitzana border terminal, the only commercial crossing between Israel and Egypt, to pick up supplies.
“A lot of people work there,” he said. “In the past, the border might close sporadically because of diplomatic tension, but overall it worked well.
“We are all waiting to see what will happen in Egypt,” Gini adds, pursing his lips together. “Nobody knows what will be.”