Besides political pressure due the Palestinians’ upcoming bid for statehood at the U.N. in September, Israel is suffering heaviest bombardments since Operation Cast lead in early 2009. Over 150 Qassam and Grad rockets has been fired at Israeli communities since last Thursday when Palestinian terrorists implemented a terrorist attack via Sinai in Southern Israel near tourist resort Eilat. The attack and quick response by Israel Defence Force (IDF) have now escalated and the situation is dangering also Egyptian-Israeli relationship and peace agreement.
The Sinai attack
A string of terrorist attacks took place near the Israeli-Egyptian border near of the Netafim crossing, about 20 km north of Eilat (Israel’s southernmost city) on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011. The attack left 8 Israeli citizen dead, 5 Egyptian police- and army officer died as well 10 of attackers. Some victims are still in critical condition.
Assailants crossing in from Sinai used automatic and anti-tank weapons, mortars and roadside bombs for separate attacks on two buses, two civilian cars and a military vehicle on Highway 12 which runs close to the wide open Egyptian Sinai border. All three gunmen who attacked the bus were killed in a firefight with an Israeli special police force. Israeli military sources first estimated that 20 terrorists took part in the attacks – some reaching their targets through Israel, others providing them with mortar cover from Sinai. Seven were killed. Two bodies were rigged with explosives. The Egyptian military told the IDF that its soldiers also killed two terrorists in the Sinai. Now Israel is involved in a dispute with Egypt after three Egyptian officers were killed by Israeli gunfire.
At least three of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on the road to Eilat last Thursday were Egyptian citizens, according to a report in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yaoum. In addition to the three, five Egyptian policemen and soldiers were also killed in the various firefights. Haaretz has learned that 12 terrorists, in four groups, carried out the attack. The groups were dispersed over an area 12 kilometers long. At least some of the attackers wore brown uniforms, similar to those used by the Egyptian Army. The investigation by the Egyptians has shown that Israeli troops entered into the Sinai Peninsula chasing after the terrorists. During the pursuit, fire was exchanged with Egyptian police. Moreover, an Israeli helicopter, according to the Egyptian probe, fired two rockets at the terrorists and fired machine guns at Egyptian policemen. (More: Haaretz )
The Israeli Defense Minister Barak noted the importance of the Peace Agreement with Egypt and emphasised Israel’s appreciation for the level-headedness and responsibility demonstrated by the Egyptians. “Israel is sorry for the deaths of the Egyptian policemen during the attack on the Israel-Egypt border.” (PMO/press)
According analysis made by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center the attack was planned in the Gaza Strip by the Popular Resistance Committees and perpetrated by terrorists who crossed from Gaza into Sinai via smuggling tunnels. They then travelled some 200 kilometers to reach an area of the border protected only by a tattered wire fence, about 15 kilometers north of Eilat.
The week after: Response, Escalation and fragile Ceasefire
“I have set out a principle – when the citizens of Israel are attacked, we respond immediately and with strength. That principle was implemented today. Those who gave the order to murder our citizens, while hiding in Gaza, are no longer among the living.” (Benjamin Netanyahu, PM/Israel after Sinai attack)
Israel claimed that the Sinai attack was carried out by terror cells affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in the Gaza Strip, whose leaders were killed in response to the attacks in an Israel Air Force strike later Thursday afternoon. The PRC members killed in the retaliatory IAF air strike included the head of the terror group Kamal Nirab, who the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said had personally directed and planned the attack. Another man killed in the strike was identified as Amas Hamed, commander of the PRC’s military wing and a resident of Rafah. (Source and more e.g in The Jerusalem Post -article )
On Friday, one day after coordinated terror attacks killed eight in southern Israel, 30 Grad and Qassam rockets were fired throughout southern Israel. The rocket attacks on southern Israel continued Saturday in areas near Be’er Sheva and in the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. (Source: Haaretz ). Israel Hayom reports that Southern Israel continued to absorb rocket fire from the Gaza Strip over the weekend, in the heaviest bombardment the country has seen since Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. By Sunday afternoon, over 100 rockets had been fired at Israeli communities since Thursday. More than a million Israelis within rocket range of Gaza have been warned to heed the instructions of the Homefront Command and remain alert.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad issued a statement detailing the rocket attacks in which the organization was involved between August 19 and 21. According to the announcement, the organization fired 17 standard Grad rockets, nine 107mm rockets, three Quds rockets [of local manufacture], and 22 mortar shells (PIJ’s Jerusalem Battalions website, August 23, 2011). The main faction of the PRC (the Salah al-Din Brigades) reported that its operatives had fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel during the last round of attacks. Thus it can be seen that both organizations played a major role in rocket attacks against Israel in the latest round of escalation (160 rockets were fired at Israel, 120 of them landing in Israeli territory).(Sources: The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center and MFA/Israel )
IDF sources have reported that Iron Dome batteries had shot down 20 incoming rockets fired by Gaza militants in the first five days of cross-border violence. Iron Dome guardens Gaza borderzone in few places and even if their amounth would be multipled the cover would not be 100%. An additional problem is economic one as every anti-rocket launch cost 40.000 – 100.000 USD; in future Skyguard laser beam system – still at development stage – might be the answer as one launch costs only 1.000 – 2.000 USD. More about Israeli missile defence in article Will Iron Dome balance the Hamas Terror? .
After a week of violence escalation now is at least temporary over as informal and fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is more or less prevailing. Egypt was active brokering an armistice between Israel and Hamas in an effort to stop the violence of recent days from escalating further, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat reported on Saturday. According to the report, Cairo has delivered an Israeli communiqué to Hamas, saying that its actions following Thursday’s deadly terror attacks near Eilat meant to target their perpetrators alone; and that it will cease its air strikes on Gaza if Hamas and the Strip’s other militant groups cease their rocket fire on Israel. The newspapers added that Egypt’s efforts are focused on both preventing the violence in southern Israel from spiralling out of control, as well as preventing an wide-scale Israel military campaign in Gaza. (Source: Ynetnews )
Sinai as new front
In 2005 Debkafile intelligence sources reported following:
Al Qaeda has established local terror networks in northern Sinai – centering on el Arish, as well as strongholds in the inaccessible central mountains of the peninsula around Jebel Hillal. In all, the jihadists control roughly one-fifth of Sinai total area (61,000sq. km or 23,500sq. miles). Egyptian forces of law and order have learned not to venture into these bastions or into the areas commanded by age-old smuggler clans who currently collaborate with al Qaeda. This leaves about half of the forbidding desert peninsula inaccessible to Egyptian security forces.
Description above is six years old, however it gives some background to challenge as this was situation during stabile Mubarak time, now after events in Libya and Egypt the thread can be even bigger.
Before Sinai attack early August Israel stopped what would have been a spectacular border terrorist attack planned from inside the Gaza Strip, according to Egyptian security officials. The attack was aimed at the sole pipeline that supplies Gaza with gas. The Egyptian officials said members of Jihadiya Salafiya, an al-Qaida-allied group in Gaza, are suspected of attempting the major attack along with elements of the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad. Since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, similar attacks have been carried out three times now on an Egyptian pipeline located in the Sinai desert that supplies Israel with about 35 percent of its gas needs. All three attacks have been blamed on Jihadiya Salafiya and likeminded Islamist jihad groups. Unlike other radical Islamic organizations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have demonstrated some pragmatism in aspects of political life while still holding an Islamist worldview, the new al-Qaida organization believes in a strict interpretation of the Quran and that only the Quran can dictate how to act. The Islamist group believes violent jihad is the primary way to spread Islam around the world, including jihad against secular Muslim states. (Source: WND/Did Israel just stop ‘spectacular’ terror attack? )
It seems reasonable, that members of al-Qaeda and other groups affiliated with Global Jihad exploited the security vacuum in Sinai especially after “Arab Spring”. Egypt has accused Sinai terror groups not only blowing up the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan but also of attacking police patrols. Earlier on Sunday 14th Aug., three Egyptian army brigades of 1,700 men backed by tanks, an equal number of special policemen and 3,400 security personnel drove into the northern towns of El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, which is divided between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In their first clashes with Islamic Liberation Army gunmen, they killed one and detained 11, four of them Palestinians, he Egyptian military communiqué reported. The aim of this operation is/was to retake control of the territory from lawless and terrorist elements rampant there since the Egyptian revolution and responsible for sabotaging the Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan and Syria. It is estimated that some 2,000 well-organized and heavily armed Islamist gunmen resides in Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian forces have fought for control of these mountains several times but failed, ending up with accommodations of sorts with the 350,000 Bedouin tribes sheltering the Islamists and sharing in their smuggling trade. The tribes always came out of these deals in control of the region.
Debkafile’s military sources report that the Islamic Liberation Army – which has declared its objective as the seizure of all of Sinai and its transformation into a Muslim Caliphate – is a conglomerate of five terrorist groups:
- Indigenous Bedouin tribes who have a score to settle with the Egyptian army;
- Palestinians from the Gaza Strip drawn into extremist Salafi sects which are integral parts of al Qaeda.
- Hundreds of adherents of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the murderous Jamaa al-Islamiya who escaped Egyptian prisons on January 29 at the peak of the popular revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak. The former jailbirds made a beeline for Sinai and today constitute the hard operational core of the movement.
- Al Qaeda adherents, who made their way to Sinai after violent careers in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
- Followers of various Egyptian Sufi and dervish orders.
A bit similar information about current relationship between Hamas and more radical groups in Gaza can be found from folloing quote in Israel Hayom :
A senior military source told Israel Hayom on Saturday that a Gaza-based terrorist organization known as the Popular Resistance Committees was responsible for the rocket fire on Beersheba and Ofakim, along with global jihad groups associated with al-Qaida. The source added that Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, was attempting to prevent missile fire in order to prevent continued escalation.
One of the terrorist leaders in Sinai, formerly Osama bin Laden’s doctor, Dr. Ramzi Muwafi, was recently captured by the Egyptian military. Muwafi commanded a terrorist training camp of 40 Al Qaeda operatives near El Arish, the capital of Northern Sinai. It also claimed that hundreds of organization activists were sent to the Sinai peninsula in order to establish an Islamic emirate. (Source e.g: Walla ) Early Wednesday morning, the IDF assassinated Islamic Jihad figure Ismail Zadi Ismail Asmar, who organized the smuggling of Iranian Grad missiles into Gaza via Sinai. Asmar also provided the funding for the 15 or so terrorists who shot up the Eilat highway in southern Israel.
To address the worsening security situation in the Sinai, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told that Israel would agree to let Egypt station thousands of soldiers in the Sinai following last week’s cross-border attacks. Barak said he would agree to the deployment of soldiers and that the Egyptians would be able to “have helicopters and armored vehicles, but no tanks beyond the lone battalion already stationed there.” The new deployment, if it happens, will require modifications of the Egypt-Israel peace accord, which stipulates that the Sinai Peninsula remain a demilitarized zone, with precise and limited numbers of Egyptian forces and the types of weapons they are allowed to bear. (Source: Israel Hayom )
The Sinai attack will sure have consequences and especially in Israel there is now need for for new situation analysis. Some of the considerable aspects of revised positions might be the following:
- The Sinai attack will change military outlook on borderzone. For three decades since concluding a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel regarded their common 200-kilometer border as safe and non-belligerent. Tank units, armored infantry, airborne radar and early warning electronic capabilities will be strung the length of the Egyptian border. Also building a security fence on Egyptian-Israeli border will be speeded up so that 100 km will be implemented this year in addition to 30 km which is already constructed.
- The attack on Eilat highlighted how Egypt’s military government is losing control of the Sinai Peninsula. During the midday raid, gunmen ambushed a civilian Israeli bus and attackers also detonated a roadside bomb targeting military vehicles responding to the attack.
- In Israeli internal politics the events have boosted political parties to seek more cooperation as e.g. Interior Minister Eli Yishai worked to bring the Kadima party into a unity government.
- Al-Qaeda might be emerging in Sinai. The Arab Spring has made it possible that different Islamist actors, such as Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Sufists, can now use constitutional means to come power putting more radical groups, such as Al-Qaeda in marginals. By exploiting the Israel-Gaza situation jihadists however can indirectly confront Egyptian regime and complicate matters for Israel and the outcome may well be unravelling the Egyptian-Israeli relationship most serious way since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords.
- Iran may have cut off all financial support to Hamas due to the latter’s failure to support embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad, diplomatic sources told Reuters on Sunday. Hamas’ 2010 budget reportedly totalled some $540 million, with only a tenth of that covered by tax revenues from local commerce and on goods smuggled in through the Egyptian border.
One alarming scenario is that when U.S. is pulling out of Iraq at the end of this year the country could allow Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Iraq and Syria (if al-Assad is not ousted) to form the “Shiite Crescent” in preparation for war with Israel. Hezbollah has 50,000 missiles, which can destroy targets in Israel and if Syria and Iran join the war, the situation in Israel could be worrying despite the fact that Israel probably would win the war.
- Israel therefore conceivably could face conflict in Gaza, a conflict along the Lebanese border and a rising in the West Bank, something it clearly knows. This could mean risky three-front war. In a rare move, Israel announced plans to call up reserves in September. Though preannouncements of such things are not common, Israel wants to signal resolution.