A Great and Terrible Wilderness

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Moises Saman / Magnum

A Bedouin stands next to a military tank at a checkpoint in al-Arish, in North Sinai.

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How bad is it? Last year the Multinational Force and Observers, a mostly American force stationed around Sinai as part of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, described the security situation as "unimaginable." And last June, Germany's intelligence agency declared that Sinai had replaced the Pakistani badlands of Waziristan as the training ground of choice for German extremists. Analysts say most training occurs in Gaza, where groups more extreme than Hamas maintain camps, then shift to Sinai to operate freely.

The situation turned immeasurably worse with the July 3 coup in Cairo. Within hours, Islamists overran government buildings in al-Arish, capital of Sinai's northern governorate. An emirate was announced. Policemen were killed at the rate of one a day. Before the month's end, al-Sisi pivoted from unrest in the mainland to launch a major military operation on the peninsula.

It has been a sledgehammer offensive. After the police disappeared, for instance, Bedouin repeatedly bombed Egypt's natural gas pipeline to Israel, taking care to injure no one: they were merely telegraphing their displeasure that they were not getting protection money to safeguard the line.

But to Egyptian armor swarming Sinai's north, force was only a blunt instrument. Trained to fight national armies, not an insurgency, the Egyptian military leveled suspect houses with missiles from Apache helicopter gunships and sent F-16 fighter jets screaming overhead. "They have a lot to learn in this field," says a senior Israeli officer, speaking privately to criticize an operation Israel favors. "And they're learning." At a cost. By September, the most recent figures Egyptian officials have provided, the death count included nearly as many police officers as militants: about 100 each. (Although the fighting has continued, information about more-recent casualties is sketchy, and independent verification is very difficult since few noncombatants dare roam the deserts.) Egypt says a quarter of the dead are foreigners, but many of the rest are Bedouin, whose tribal code requires that deaths of members be avenged. The demand further muddies a confused battlefield. "It's impossible to know now what attacks are terrorist attacks and what are personal revenge," one tribal leader tells TIME.

Sometimes the author of an attack is evident from its brutality. The July 11 decapitation of a Coptic Christian was clearly the act of extremists. But if the shooting of individual officers may be the work of vengeful Bedouin, the Aug. 18 slaughter of 25 police recruits — shot in the back of the head, prostrate, on a roadside — was an assault on state authority defying Sinai's previous norms.

As for Gaza, in July the generals moved to seal it off, shutting down the official border crossing and taking the first real action against tunnels. By early August, 794 were closed, Egyptian authorities claimed. The loss of so many supply lines immediately hurt Hamas. "We never expected the Egyptians to deal with Gaza like this," says Salah Abu Sharkh, head of security for the Hamas government.

But the threat to Israel from Sinai's lawlessness remains. Even after adding a high-tech new border fence, officials fret about the high ground above the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where a militant with a shoulder-fired missile might get a clear shot at a commercial flight coming in to land. The fears have prompted one closure of the airport and altered flight paths. El Al Israel Airlines ceased flights altogether for several days in September.

That month, Egyptian authorities allowed St. Catherine's to reopen. But the fighting has continued in the north, car bombs and assassinations answered by air strikes and leveled houses. And on Oct. 7, a car bomb exploded in El Tor — far from Mount Sinai but close enough to hurt: it was the first strike in Sinai's heavily guarded, tourist-dependent south.

The monks may have their solitude a while longer. "Structurally, this was built as a fortress," Father Justin says, noting that the walls of St. Catherine's are 18 m high. He pauses and adds, "It's easily turned back into a fortress." But it wouldn't be the most positive message to come down from Mount Sinai.

with reporting by Ashraf Khalil / Cairo and Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

Correction: The location of the Suez Canal was misstated in an earlier version of this story.

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