Egypt’s “Unholy” Claim to Sinai
By David Isaac
“After President Mubarak steps down and a provisional government is formed, there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel,” said Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Rashad al-Bayoumi in an interview on Russian television. Kamal Helbawi, another leader of the Brotherhood, echoed this statement, saying “We cannot respect such agreements and won’t approve of them.”
Not to be outdone, Dr. Ayman Nur, leader of the liberal secular Tomorrow Party, and as Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick points out, “the man heralded as the liberal democratic alternative to Mubarak by Washington neo-conservatives,” announced on Egyptian radio: “The Camp David Accords are over. Egypt has to at least conduct negotiations over conditions of the agreement.”
However you say chutzpah in Arabic, these Egyptian leaders have plenty of it. It takes nerve to suggest the renegotiation of a treaty their country never implemented – Egypt shelved the treaty and ignored its provisions once it had the Sinai neatly tucked into its pocket.
But if it’s a renegotiation the Egyptians want, Israel ought to oblige. Renegotiation should start where negotiations began, with Israel controlling the Sinai, and specifically with an eye to Egyptian claims to that territory.
The fact of the matter is that Egypt has never had more than a tenuous historical connection to the Sinai Peninsula. This is pertinent as President Anwar Sadat based his claim to the area by cynically describing it as “holy” soil. Asked by an American journalist why he insisted that Israel evacuate the Sinai, Sadat declared: Sinai is “part of our land,” and “I cannot give up an inch of our land.”
But Israel has at least as much right – indeed more right – to Sinai than Egypt. As Shmuel Katz, an advisor to Menachem Begin and author of “Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine”, pointed out, Sinai was not historically part of Egyptian territory. It was a political no man’s land. In an agreement between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in 1906, “Egypt was given the job of administering Sinai, but it wasn’t given sovereignty over Sinai. It meant that if Egypt used this administered territory to make a war on Israel, there was certainly no historic reason for us to give back Sinai,” Katz said.
Katz’s claim is backed up by an in-depth 76-page report issued by the Israel Ministry of Justice in 1971. The report examined competing claims to the Sinai. Its conclusion was apparently too controversial for then-Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who had the report suppressed.
On page 70, the report states: “Upon the break-up of the Turkish Empire at the end of the First World War and its renunciation under the Treaty of Lausanne 1923 of rights and titles to certain largely undefined territories, including Sinai, a void was created because there was no formal disposition of Turkish Sovereignty either by cession or annexation or in any other formal manner as happened with other Turkish territories which were placed under a number of mandates or otherwise ‘legally’ disposed of. The diplomatic fiction of Egyptian independence ‘granted’ by Britain in 1922 and its extensions in 1936 and 1954 did not and does not alter the formal situation. The abstract title to Sinai still remains outstanding to be acquired by one or other mode recognized under international law.”
The British themselves affirm this. In the wake of the 1956 war in which Israel first took the Sinai, Richard Meinertzhagen, who was military advisor to the Middle East Department of the British Colonial Office from 1921-24, wrote in a letter to the Times of London on Feb. 9, 1957: “Sir: Mr. Ben Gurion [is quoted] as saying that he did not attack Egypt proper. That assertion is perfectly true. The Israeli army attacked and occupied No man’s land. In 1926, Lord Lloyd asked the Foreign Office if the 1906 agreement was still valid and was told that it was. This was personally confirmed to me by Lloyd in 1928. Egypt’s only rights in Sinai are administrative and these have been abused by using Sinai as a base for fedayeen raids and erecting coastal batteries at the mouth of the Gulf of Akaba.”
C.S. Jarvis, governor of Sinai after it was attached to Egypt by the British following their conquest of the Peninsula in World War I, wrote in his book “Three Deserts” (John Murray, 1936): “(The administration of Sinai) … was the illegitimate offspring of the British Army … and the Egyptian Ministry of Finance was asked to accept paternity. This they never did willingly … having been conceived and brought into the world by purely British influence, it was treated by the Egyptian Government from the first with studied neglect.”
Several years after the Six Day War, Eliezer Livneh, a long-time leader in the Labor Party and a founder of the Land of Israel Movement, investigated Sadat’s claims that Sinai was part of Egypt.
“The question here is fundamental,” Livneh wrote. “Is the Sinai Peninsula in fact Egypt, or part of Egypt? Has Sinai ever constituted a part of Egypt throughout its long history? Have the Egyptians treated Sinai as if it were part of their homeland? Have they felt it as part of their homeland? The answer to all these is negative, unequivocally and absolutely.”
“The Egyptians saw Sinai as a foreign territory, at the most a border colony, and they treated it accordingly,” Livneh wrote. “[T]he Cairo government did nothing to populate and develop the Peninsula, in spite of Egypt’s overabundant population and the tremendous birthrate in the Nile Valley. The sole agricultural development project was initiated during the 1920s, by the British governor, C.S. Jarvis. The oil wells of Abu Rudeis were initiated, financed and established by Italians.”
“With the rise of the Nasser regime Cairo’s attention turned to Sinai and Sinai was to some extent ‘developed’: developed as a base of aggression against Israel. This reached its peak in May 1967 when a force of some one hundred thousand Egyptian troops together with full armor, air and logistic support were concentrated in Sinai. Sinai became the ‘homeland’ of Egyptian imperialism,” Livneh wrote.
Even the most cursory review of Egypt’s recent history bears this out. In 1948, Egypt joined with four other Arab states in an attempt to crush Israel at birth. Egypt lost the war but not its desire for Israel’s destruction. It trained Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, to carry out raids inside Israel, murdering women and children. It conducted this six year campaign of terror despite having signed an Armistice Agreement with Israel in 1949.
In an effort to end such incursions, Israel successfully captured the entire Peninsula in the Sinai campaign of 1956, only to be pressured by President Eisenhower to relinquish it, a decision he later regretted. The Egyptians, with the Sinai again in their hands, upped the ante, and began preparing for the Six Day War. Losing that one in spectacular fashion, they then waged the War of Attrition, until Anwar Sadat took the reins of power and put an end to it, not because he wanted peace, but in order to prepare for his own effort to destroy Israel in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War.
Indeed, such has been Egyptian hostility toward Israel, that if the Sinai is holy soil, as Sadat claimed it was in the 1970s, it was holy first and foremost to the Jews, who consecrated the land with their blood.
Even in ancient times, one sees a surprising continuity of attitude among Egyptians towards Sinai. In the course of its long history, Egypt has conquered Sinai from time to time and indeed it also conquered Palestine and Syria, Libya and the Sudan. But such imperialist and colonialist expansion did not make these lands Egypt, not even in the consciousness of the Egyptians themselves, who continued to regard them as foreign, albeit vanquished and tributary territories to be looted, if necessary depopulated, or in the case of Sinai to be used as a source of minerals from slave-operated mines.
The crucial views of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Biblical sources all have one thing in common – the recognition that not only the Sinai itself but the land to the west as far as the Nile is not Egypt. At the beginning of the historical period, the Egyptians placed the frontier between Egypt and “abroad” between the Damietta and Tannitic branch of the Nile. In Pyramid Texts, the god of Busiris was considered protector of the eastern frontier. Saft el Henna, located almost 35 miles due west from Ismailia and the Suez Canal was a frontier outpost against Asian enemies.
Three Biblical texts fix the border of the Land of Israel in the eastern tributary of the Nile delta (Genesis 15:18, Joshua 13:3, Chronicles I, 13:5). One additional text explicitly includes the land of Goshen (east of the Nile delta) in the borders of Israel (Joshua 11:16).
And Herodotus (5th century B.C.), presenting the views of the Greek geographers, wrote “the Ionians say nothing is really Egypt but the delta.”
And what of Israel’s claim to Egypt? The Israeli side at the renegotiating table – in addition to dusting off that impressive 1971 Israel Ministry of Justice report – might look to Eliezer Livneh, who made a heartfelt case for the Jewish ties to the Sinai Peninsula when it was still in Israel’s hands.
“Were it not for Sinai, Israel would not have come into existence. Were it not for Israel, Sinai would be unknown. The memories and lessons of Sinai, its mountains and valleys, its oases and springs, its flora and fauna are all writ deep in the whole of Jewish experience, throughout its generations and literary expressions – in the Bible and the Talmud, the Midrashim and in modern Hebrew poetry.
“The feeling and sense of identity, the ties and devotion that have arisen in today’s generation of Israeli youth through meeting with Sinai are an expression of a deep-rooted acquaintance, a hidden yearning: we have already been here! There is no place in all the Land of Israel, with the exception of Jerusalem, which arouses such deep and clear emotions and associations as Sinai. The urge to explore and the desire to settle Sinai – from Nahal Diklah to the tip of the Peninsula – reflects something hidden within the Jewish soul, awaiting expression and fulfillment.
“Has such a thing happened with the Egyptians? Is it possible, indeed fair to demand such a love from them? For them Sinai is a desert; for Israel that desert is the very source of life.”
David Isaac is the former executive director of Americans for A Safe Israel, and worked for many years as a reporter and editorial writer for a national business newspaper. He is currently e-Editor of a Web site dedicated to Shmuel Katz, the Zionist biographer, essayist and historian