On Sunday evening, 35 members of a Bedouin terrorist cell broke into an Egyptian army base in the Sinai, killing some 15 Egyptian soldiers and wounding others. They commandeered two armored jeeps, which headed to the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel. (Kerem Shalom sits at the intersection of Israel, Egypt and Gaza.)
One of the jeeps exploded at the crossing — likely because of explosives it was carrying — and the other entered Israel, where it was intercepted by the IDF. No Israelis were killed or injured.
Eight terrorists were taken out, however; of these, at least six were wearing explosive belts. This was a sophisticated and exceedingly serious operation intent on causing disaster in a variety of venues.
Here you see just some of the weapons the terrorists — understood to have been part of a global jihad terrorist infrastructure — were carrying.
Credit: IDF spokesman
Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz (left, below) and Brigadier General Tal Russo (second from right) toured the scene after the attack, and praised both Israeli intelligence and the fighting forces for their skill and their cooperative effort. We’re talking about IDF Intelligence forces, the Air Force, armored ground forces, infantry and the Shin Bet.
Credit: Israel Hayom
“There were quite a few clashes before [the jeep] was destroyed. Armored forces, the Air Force and infantry forces closed in and eventually it was destroyed from the air and on the ground.
“Those who attempted to escape and fire at the forces after [the jeep] was destroyed, were also eliminated,”
There are several implications that follow from this incident.
First is the way that this impacts the Egyptians. It’s one thing for them to turn their back on terrorists who are harbored inside the Sinai with intention to cross the border into Israel and hit Israelis. It’s quite another when terrorists hit an Egyptian army base and kill Egyptian soldiers.
Defense Minister Barak referred to this as a wake-up call for Egypt. The expectation is that Egypt will begin to act seriously with regard to regaining control of the Sinai.
And indeed, this morning 100 Egyptian troops surrounded the village of Sheikh Zuweid village — located in northern Sinai, between Arish and Rafah — where “militants” were known to be hiding, and killed 20. This was accomplished via strikes by helicopters, for which the Egyptians had received prior permission from Israel. This represents the first such air strike by Egypt in the Sinai since 1973. Earlier, there had been an action against terrorists in Arish.
All of this is part of what has been dubbed the “Sinai cleansing operation,” with other action still anticipated in Rafah, which sits on the border with Gaza. Egyptian security estimates there are 2,000 jihadists terrorists in the Sinai.
Because the region of Sinai in which the battle with terrorists is taking place is in the north, near Israel, it was particularly important that Egypt seek Israeli consent before bringing in heavy military equipment. (More on this below.)
And this brings us to another implication of this situation, with regard to the relationship between Israel and Egypt. Obviously, cooperation under the current difficult circumstances is necessary and desirable — and there is speculation as to whether this will have the effect of enhancing that relationship. At a mid-level of diplomacy, we have daily contact with Egypt, but interaction is not what it was during the Mubarak years. Whether it will improve now, remains to be seen.
At this point in time, the peace treaty is holding. I find this at least tentatively encouraging, but note that there are those who are unhappy about having to get permission from Israel to bring military equipment into what is considered an integral part of Egypt (which is not quite the case, but I’ll come back to this some other time).
The Egyptians are also enormously sensitive when it comes to Israeli actions on Egyptian (Sinai) soil or in Egyptian air space. As a matter of fact, some grumbling was heard by an Egyptian government official who claimed Israel entered Egypt in taking out the terrorists on Sunday evening. I have no information as to whether this might have been the case, but if it was, it would have been an enormously peripheral “intrusion.”
Because we cannot pursue terrorists into the Sinai or hit cells there when we have information about a planned attack (although we can and surely do share the intelligence), it means we must rely at some level upon Egyptian readiness to act. What we can and must do is maintain enormous vigilance on our side of the border. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who also visited the area of the attack, made this very point when saying that the incident reinforces our understanding that we can depend only on ourselves.
There is some anticipation that Egypt may seek permission from Israel to increase the number of troops they maintain in the Sinai for purposes of combating terrorism. This is a delicate business, as the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty called for a demilitarized Sinai, for good reason. Already, with Israeli permission, the number of Egyptian troops there exceeds what the treaty permits — there are currently some seven battalions in the Sinai, in the north, near the border with Gaza.
This might be seen as a difficult call for Israeli officials under the present circumstances. What is obvious is that the sophistication and intensity of attacks by terrorists coming out of the Sinai will only increase over time. And, as Israel cannot go into the Sinai to take them out, it is greatly desirable that Egyptian forces should do so.
However — and this is a very serious proviso — should the Egyptian forces fall under the control of the Brotherhood, which might break the treaty with Israel, it would be to our serious detriment were those troops in large numbers to be close to the border with Israel.
The IDF has said it will “consider” requests for troop enhancement in the Sinai. Foreign Minister Lieberman says there are enough troops already in the Sinai to do the job.
Lastly, there is the issue of the relationship of Egypt with Gaza.
While a large jihadist terror group is situated in the Sinai, there are elements in Gaza as well — with movement from one area to the other. Egypt believes that terrorists involved in planning Sunday’s attack had come out of Gaza. Because of the security vacuum in the Sinai since Mubarak’s fall, terrorists in Gaza had come to consider this the safest venue from which to launch attacks on Israel.
And so now a fairly remarkable occurrence is taking place: Egypt has moved heavy equipment into the Rafah area at the Sinai-Gaza border, and will be sealing all of the smuggling tunnels, hundreds in number, from the Egyptian side.
For years, Israel has been struggling with the issue of increasingly sophisticated weapons, brought into the Sinai from Libya, Iran and elsewhere, that were then smuggled through those tunnels into Gaza to be used in attacking Israel. In fact, personnel were also brought in via the tunnels — military experts from Iran, for example, while Palestinian Arabs in Gaza were smuggled out for training and then brought back.
While Egyptian security did from time to time commandeer caches of weapons in Sinai that were headed for Gaza, they were never serious about stopping the smuggling. Now, because of their own security needs, it seems that smuggling will be halted, and that this will impact the ability of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups more radical still to build their arsenals of weaponry and train and enhance their fighting forces.
But there is yet another way in which this situation will likely impact Israel: a vast black market economy exists in Gaza via goods smuggled in from the Sinai, although it has diminished with the increase of goods permitted in by Israel. If the black market economy is halted, pressure regarding what is brought in from Israel to Gaza is likely to increase.
And to further complicate the situation: it seems that Hamas, which is relatively “moderate” compared to some of the jihadist groups in Gaza, has voiced criticism of the terror attack and is cooperating with Egypt by sealing the tunnels from the Gaza side. Surely Hamas leaders feels they have no choice but to play it this way, for the sealing of those tunnels impacts Hamas’s economy.
The enormous irony here is that Hamas had welcomed the participation of the Brotherhood in Egypt’s new government. Just last week Hamas’s Ismail Haneyeh had visited Egyptian president Morsi and there was talk of greater closeness between Hamas and Egypt, with an increase in the traffic permitted between Gaza and the Sinai, and eventually a lifting of the blockade entirely. In fact, in spite of objections by the Supreme Military Council, Haniyeh and Morsi had forged an agreement that Egypt would stop immediately deporting Palestinian Arabs arriving in Cairo without entry visas.
Khaled Abu Toameh, writing in the JPost, says that Egypt’s military establishment has long considered Hamas a threat because of its connections with terror groups in the Sinai. And in light of current tensions, a warming of the relationship between Morsi and Hamas seems very much on hold.
A vastly complex situation, that is still playing itself out…
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.