EILAT, Israel — A short drive north from this Red Sea resort town, a new reality is taking shape along Israel’s desert border with Egypt. A lonely frontier road flanked by a low, rusting fence is buzzing with earth-moving equipment and workmen erecting an imposing steel barrier encased in razor wire that is gradually snaking across the desolate landscape.
The new border fence, about 15 feet high, is the most tangible sign of Israel’s growing unease about the upheaval in Egypt, which has aggravated shaky security conditions in the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel. Israeli concerns were heightened in August when gunmen who crossed from Sinai struck on the border road north of Eilat, leaving eight Israelis dead.
That attack led to the acceleration of work on the border fence, which, when complete, will run about 140 miles from Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip south to the Eilat area. Originally intended as an obstacle to the thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers who sneak across the frontier annually, the barrier is increasingly seen as a bulwark against security threats emanating from Sinai.
But the rising fence is also a metaphor for how Israel sees itself in a changing Middle East: Beset on all sides by profound shifts in its Arab neighbors that could alter the strategic balance in the region, it is bolstering its defenses and preparing for the worst.
Lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, where local Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by the Egyptian authorities, has increased since Egypt’s revolution early this year. Attackers have targeted police posts and repeatedly blown up a natural gas pipeline supplying Israel, leading the government to dispatch additional security forces to the region.
Israeli officials say members of radical Islamic groups and Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip are seeking to use Sinai as a platform for attacks on Israel. Some have cautioned that the political turmoil in Egypt, and the possible emergence of a government with a strong Islamist element, could threaten the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The pact has kept the border calm and is seen as a key element of Israel’s security.
Matan Vilnai, the Israeli minister for civil defense and a retired general, said in an interview with Israeli Army Radio last week that he expected a “serious erosion” of the peace treaty with Egypt when its new political leadership emerges. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been more circumspect, declaring that preserving the treaty remains an interest of both Israel and Egypt, regardless of what government emerges there.
For now, the border remains relatively quiet but potentially volatile. Bedouin smugglers and illegal migrants continue to cross the still-porous frontier, and beefed-up Israeli forces are on alert for infiltration by gunmen seeking to attack inside Israel. The smugglers move arms, drugs and other contraband, while the migrants from countries such as Eritrea and Sudan make the risky crossing to seek a livelihood and asylum in Israel.