By Sheera Frenkel, McClatchy Newspapers –
EILAT, Israel — Sparks flew across the desert sand as Mohammad Omar welded barbed wire to the top of a 16-foot fence that winds its way across the Israeli-Egyptian border.
Against the brown and tan landscape, the gleaming white metal of the fence stands out, an ominous warning to those attempting to cross into Israel.
“We have been working here for several months. By the end of the year we will be finished,” Omar said, confirming a timeline that Israel’s defense minister had announced earlier.
Concerned about turmoil in Egypt and what Israeli military officials say is a rising threat along the country’s southern border, Israel has embarked on building an iron barrier that will stretch nearly 140 miles from the Taba border crossing on the Red Sea north through the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip and the Mediterranean. It will be the largest man-made object in the largely unoccupied desert.
Israeli military officials, providing a tour of the fence this week, said the threat along the country’s southern border with Egypt now was “as high as we have seen it.”
“There are groups in Sinai right now planning terror attacks,” the commander of the military unit assigned to defend the southern border said in a briefing. Under the conditions of the presentation, he couldn’t be identified.
“There is criminal activity, smuggling, that is linked to the terrorism and can be used by them,” he said.
Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a year ago, the Sinai peninsula has become a largely lawless area.
Zeinab Abdo, a 31-year-old mother of five who lives in a village outside Al Arish in the Sinai, said that years of mistreatment at the hands of Egyptian soldiers and police had led to chaos in the wake of the revolution.
“They were here everywhere, and now they’re not,” she said. “Everyone else is doing what they want now while they can.”
Egyptian news reports claim that al-Qaida and other groups have taken advantage of the decline in security to create bases in the Sinai.
The commander said tensions have calmed since last August, when a group from Sinai crossed into Israel to launch a series of attacks that killed eight Israelis. In an ensuing gunfight, Israeli soldiers shot and killed five Egyptian border guards, setting off a diplomatic row that was quelled only after Israel apologized for the guards’ deaths.