Explosion Rocks Egypt Gas Terminal Near Israel

EL-ARISH, Egypt -- An explosion rocked a natural gas terminal near Egypt's border with Israel on Wednesday, sending flames shooting into the air in the early hours of the morning and forcing the shutdown of the country's export pipeline.

It was the second attack in just the past month on the al-Sabil terminal near the town of El-Arish just 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Israel. On March 27 gunmen planted explosives at the terminal, which failed to detonate.

The flow of gas from the main terminal in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast was shut down to stifle the 65 foot (20 meter) flames, cutting gas exports to Israel, Jordan and Syria. The fire continued to rage well past dawn.

"Those who carried out the explosion have harmed the people of Sinai more than any others," said Abdul-Wahab Mabrouk, the governor of North Sinai, while inspecting the site. He said the explosion also damaged the local power plant and gas leaks forced people to evacuate their homes.

He complained that the security situation was still weak and there were not enough police.

Maya Etzioni, a spokeswoman for Israel's Infrastructure Ministry, confirmed that the gas supply was cut off early Wednesday.

Bedouin tribesmen in the area have attacked the pipeline in the past, including on Feb. 5, when a different section was blown up, stopping exports to Israel and Jordan for a month. They also attempted to sabotage the pipeline in July 2010.

Security forces often clash with the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, who complain of being neglected and oppressed by the central government. Tribesmen attempt to draw attention to their grievances by blocking roads, burning tires, or attacking infrastructure.

On Tuesday, the state news agency reported that the main highway in the area was temporarily closed by protesting families of detainees before the army reopened it. Following attacks by militants on resorts in the southern Sinai between 2004 and 2006, thousands of Bedouin were detained, increasing local resentment of the central government.

Egyptian forces in the Sinai are regulated by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel which used to forbid military forces in the peninsula, leaving security in the hands of lightly armed police and border guards.

Following the popular uprising in January and February that forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the disintegration of the police force, security deteriorated further in the Sinai until the army was brought in -- with Israeli acquiescence.

Israeli infrastructure minister Uzi Landau told Israeli Army Radio that Israel had allowed the Egyptians to bring more military forces into Sinai to protect the pipeline beyond the number of troops allowed by the peace agreement.

"There is great importance in protecting the peace agreement with Egypt, and the gas contract with Israel is perhaps the most important agreement between us and the Egyptians, which bases peace not only on a written document but also on important economic interests," he said.

Asked if Israel has other alternatives if the gas supply is not resumed, he said, "We are obviously preparing for such things." The Israeli gas field known as "Tamar" will begin producing gas in 2013, he said, and will be able to provide Israel's gas needs. In the meantime Israel can generate electricity using coal, diesel and the natural gas it already produces, he said.

Egypt's gas exports to Israel have long been controversial for a population that overwhelmingly views Israelis in a negative light and in a recent poll more than half of all Egyptians suggested the peace treaty be annulled.

On April 13, the prime minister ordered a review of the gas agreements over charges that the price agreed on in 2008 was far below market rates.

Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad intelligence service, said Israel could no longer depend on a stable supply of gas from Egypt and needed to speed up the development of its own offshore gas reserves.

"We need to understand that this is a problem we're going to live with for a very long time, and we need to start preparing an alternative now," Yatom told Army Radio.

Jordan depends on Egyptian gas to generate 80 percent of its electricity. The halt to the flow would force the country to rely on more expensive diesel fuel to keep the country's power plants running.

Egypt has potential natural gas reserves of 62 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters), the 18th largest in the world.