Neighbors / War in the Sinai Desert

"Seventy-two automatic weapons, 20,000 bullets, communications devices and night-vision gear are all the arms and equipment that Egyptian security forces are searching for now among the Bedouin in northern Sinai," a senior Egyptian official told the news agencies. The Bedouin takeover of this arms warehouse next to Wadi al-Azarak in northern Sinai, where an Egyptian army base is located, is the latest action in a series of violent clashes between the Bedouin of northern Sinai and the Egyptian security forces.

A week earlier, on November 13, a Bedouin citizen was killed by fire from Egyptian soldiers claiming he approached the Egypt-Israel border near the town of Madfuna. In response, hundreds of Bedouin surrounded the local police station, briefly held 11 Egyptian policemen there and kidnapped 25 others who they released two hours later. A few days later, Egyptian security forces killed three Bedouin during an armed clash between them. What especially angered the Bedouin was the security forces' plan to bury the Bedouin next to a garbage collection facility. Now the Bedouin are demanding that the Egyptian government dismisses the district governor they say is responsible not only for the clashes but also for their being accused of collaboration with Israel.

The confrontation between the Egyptian security forces and the Bedouin in northern Sinai has been ongoing since the 2004 attacks in Taba. Then the Egyptian security forces moved into heavily Bedouin areas in the vicinity of El Arish and arrested thousands of Bedouin without trial. A year later, the Egyptians arrested several dozen Bedouin suspected of belonging to Islamic terrorist organizations such as al-Tawhid and al-Jihad, whose members are suspected of perpetrating the attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 and Dahab in April 2006.

After being jailed for close to a year without trial, the Bedouin decided to take action and in September 2007 they took over the city of El Arish, set fire to government offices, fired in the air and destroyed photos and equipment in the ruling party's offices. The Egyptian authorities attributed this incident to a dispute between two Bedouin tribes, the Tarabin and the Sawahara, but the Bedouin made it clear that this is a dispute between them and the authorities - and as proof of this, they also blocked the main road leading to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Some 300,000 Bedouin live in southern Sinai, and another 60,000 in northern Sinai. Most feel disconnected from the state that is supposed to provide them with services, education and protection. They were dispossessed of their "traditional" livelihood - tourism - and the Egyptian authorities "imported" Egyptian citizens from Cairo and Nile Delta villages to replace them. The education system ignores Bedouin tradition and Bedouin students are required to study the history of the pharaohs, but when they ask their teachers about the Bedouin heritage, their parents are summoned for a chat with teachers.

The efforts the Egyptian government invested in achieving "national reconciliation" with the Bedouin were unsuccessful. Promises to invest in regional development projects where the Bedouin reside remained on paper, and their economic situation deteriorated gradually and pushed them into new professions: drugs and weapons smuggling. Some of these weapons are transferred through tunnels into the Gaza Strip, while the Bedouin use some in their internal trade. The problem is that even the Egyptian authorities are having a hard time monitoring the Bedouin activities, because there are areas that even the Egyptian security forces cannot enter for fear of being attacked and encountering clashes, and other areas where the Bedouin are far more familiar with the desert terrain than the security forces are.

International organizations' reports published in the past warned that the Egyptian authorities' neglect of the Bedouin may push them to terrorism. The Egyptian authorities do not need these reports to understand the extent of the danger, but it seems that in the meantime they are relying on their ability to control and supervise the situation.

As far as Israel is concerned, the Egyptian authorities' treatment of the Bedouin can no longer be considered an internal Egyptian problem only. When Israel demands that Egypt blocks the transfer of arms through the tunnels, it is careful to avoid telling the Egyptians to "beware of your Bedouin," but that is what they imply. Without the supply of weapons these tunnels are not a threat, but it is also impossible to tell the Egyptians to take good care of the Bedouin, because that would be seen as intervening in Egypt's domestic affairs.

The security companies' era comes to an end

The official notice should not have surprised the 172 private security companies operating in Iraq: Even before the agreement for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq was approved by the Iraqi parliament and immediately after the Iraqi government approved it, the managers of these companies were notified that they would be losing their immunity. From now on, every employee of a private company who commits a crime can no longer evade punishment or find refuge in the American legal system.

Some 165,000 employees of these companies - an amount that exceeds the number of soldiers serving in Iraq - will be subject to the Iraqi legal system under the terms of the withdrawal agreement. The significance of this is that at any moment, an Iraqi soldier can stop such a foreign employee, whether he is a security worker or an employee of one of the 6,000 subcontractors the U.S. State Department employs in the effort to rebuild Iraq. The result might now be that many of the contracting companies will decide to leave Iraq in order not to get entangled in the country's legal system, and so that their people will not end up in Iraqi jails. Particularly after these security companies "opened an account" with Iraqi citizens when they freely used their weapons or arrested citizens, and interrogated and tortured Iraqis without the authority to do so.

American soldiers will also not have immunity from Iraqi law. A soldier who commits a crime not in the line of duty will be tried according to Iraqi law. He will, though, spend his pre-trial detention time in an American cell in Iraq, but American officials are committed to bring him for questioning and to trial at any time they are requested to do so. American forces causing third party damage in the line of duty - i.e. to innocent bystanders - will compel the American administration to pay "reasonable and fair" compensation to those same citizens for the damages.

This is the first agreement of its kind that obligates an occupying force to pay compensation for damages caused to innocent citizens in the course of military operations. It is an international precedent for anything related to the legal status of occupying forces. Washington did not rush to publicize the details of the agreement, but this week it seemed American citizens would realize that the danger awaiting their sons serving in Iraq originates not only from enemy fire, but also from Iraqi court rulings.