CAIRO // The killing on Friday of seven Eritrean migrants as they tried to enter Israel illegally marks the latest in an escalating series of violent incidents involving the restive Bedouin of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Human-rights groups have long admonished Egypt for its brutal shoot-to-kill border control policy, which has led to the deaths of 24 Israel-bound migrants at the hands of police so far this year.
But Friday's skirmish was uniquely troubling in its placement of the migrants as double victims: first, by the Bedouin smugglers who killed four of their own charges in a fire-fight near the border; then, by Egyptian border guards who opened fire on the same group of migrants as they ran towards Israel. The killings have raised questions about whether the increasingly defiant posture of the Sinai Bedouins could add further perils to the illegal migrants' already dangerous journey to Israel.
"As the security situation gets more tense, and obviously with the recent surge in Bedouin clashes, my assumption is that it will get worse for migrants," said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organisation. "Obviously, the situation of the Sinai, the trafficking of both drugs and arms, of course that can be destabilising. But how the migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers fit into the bigger picture is more that they are victims of a very strict security policy that doesn't take the rights of migrants and refugees into account."
Friday's fire-fight erupted when Bedouin human-smugglers kidnapped the mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants who had hired them to arrange safe passage into Israel. The smugglers demanded that the more than 50 tied-up migrants pay more than the agreed-upon fee for their release. After some of the migrants managed to escape, smugglers shot four of them dead. Egyptian police gunned down more of them as they attempted to cross the border into Israel.
According to the Reuters news agency, police now believe smugglers may have killed as many as 10 migrants, and that dozens more could still be at large. The killings were "the largest single number of deaths that I can recall in one incident", said Ray Jureidini, the director of the centre for migration and refugee studies. Nevertheless, the scenario itself is relatively common, said Anat Ben Dor, a human-rights lawyer and instructor at the Refugee Rights Clinic, a Tel Aviv-based legal aid and advocacy organisation.
"I've personally interviewed several people who came to Israel via this smuggler route," Ms Ben Dor said. "They've all described similar situations where they were held, sometimes for two or three months, bound by the hands and legs. All this for the purpose of trying to extort money." Smugglers usually charge US$1,000 to $2,000 (Dh3,673-Dh7,346) for what can be a horrific journey for many illegal migrants, she said.
The migrants' stories portray a gangland culture on the Sinai that is consistent with an overall rise in violence there. Over the past several years, the Bedouin have developed a reputation as smugglers and drug traffickers. The resulting police crackdown has elicited rage from the Bedouin, who insist they have been singled out for suspicion because of their unique culture and isolated lifestyle.
The rising mutual antagonism has shown itself in sporadic fire-fights this summer that have led to multiple deaths on both sides. Meanwhile, the number of Africans - mostly from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia - trying to reach Israel is increasing. While only 4,439 migrants entered Israel through Egypt in 2009, according to Israeli government statistics, more than 7,300 have made the same journey so far this year, said Ms Ben Dor.