- Last week’s terror attack into Israel from the Sinai, and the subsequent escalation in fire over the Israel-Gaza border, are the latest illustration of the threat to Israel from the Sinai, which has emerged since the onset of Egypt’s political transition last year.
- The involvement of Egyptian and now Saudi nationals in terror activity in the Sinai indicates that global jihadist groups are taking advantage of the power vacuum in the area.
- Israel faces acute challenges in responding to threats emanating from Egyptian territory, without further damaging its relations with the Egyptian authorities.
- Israel also faces the dilemma of how to pressure Hamas to reign in its own as well as other armed groups, without triggering an unwanted escalation and further disrupting the lives of civilians in southern Israel.
- The transformation of the Sinai into a hotspot of terror activity is a threat not only to Israel but to regional stability and Western interests, and restoring order to the area will require international action.
A BICOM paper on the Egypt-Israel-Gaza triangle, published in November 2011, focused on the problems posed by the destabilisation of the Egyptian controlled Sinai Peninsula. A week of violence in the area has highlighted the growth of this problem and the threat it poses to southern Israel and wider regional stability.
What sparked the latest escalation?
On 18 June, two gunmen infiltrated Israel from the Sinai and killed an Israeli civilian working on the construction of a border fence. The two gunmen were later killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli forces. In a video obtained by the Associated Press, a group claiming links to Al Qaeda took responsibility for the attack. The short video said the attack was carried out by the Mujahedeen Shura Council of Jerusalem, a murky group that was formed in April. It identifies two men, one Egyptian and one Saudi, as the perpetrators. They were apparently helped by operatives in the Gaza Strip, who were subsequently targeted by an Israeli airstrike.
Israel responded to the raid from the Sinai by targeting a Hamas rocket manufacturing facility within the Gaza Strip, stressing that it holds Hamas responsible for any terrorism emanating from the territory under its control. At the beginning of June, the IDF similarly hit Hamas targets following an attack apparently carried out by another armed faction, on that occasion the fatal shooting of an Israeli solider on the Gaza-Israel border.
This time, Hamas responded by launching rockets at southern Israel. This marked a change from previous escalations, in which rocket fire was carried out largely by smaller factions, in particular Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The last time Hamas publically accepted responsibility for firing at Israel was in April 2011, after an anti-tank missile hit an Israeli school bus killing a 16-year-old boy.
From 18 to 24 June over 150 medium range rockets, mortar shells and longer-range Grad rockets were fired at Israeli communities in the south of the country. After three days of fighting, Hamas’s military wing – Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades – announced that it was willing to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce. Though more rockets followed the announcement, they were claimed by other factions.
Why was the Sinai so central in the latest flare up?
The threat to civilians in southern Israel from armed groups in Gaza has been exacerbated and complicated by the anarchic situation that has developed in the Egyptian controlled Sinai Peninsula since the fall of Egypt’s former-president Hosni Mubarak. Israel shares a 165 mile border with the desert peninsula, which also borders the Gaza Strip, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean, and is separated from the rest of Egypt by the Suez Canal. Since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the demilitarised Sinai has been seen as an important territorial buffer between the two countries.
In recent years, however, the Sinai has turned into a source of tension between Israel and Egypt. After the Gaza Strip fell under the control of Hamas in 2006, the Sinai has increasingly become the main smuggling route for weapons, people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. The ability of armed groups to smuggle weapons through the Sinai, and to use it as a base of operations, has increased dramatically with the weakening of central authority in Cairo. Security in the Sinai has declined with attacks against the pipeline transporting natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, kidnapping of foreign tourists and assaults against police stations. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, has also come under attack.
The weakening of authority in Cairo has opened the large, sparsely populated territory for armed Palestinian groups and global jihadists to mix with Bedouin disgruntled with the central Egyptian regime. The direct threat to Israeli civilians was starkly revealed in August 2011, when eight Israelis were killed in a raid from the Sinai conducted by Egyptian and Palestinian fighters. The latest round of fighting further illustrates the threat of global jihadi elements in the Sinai linked to likeminded groups in the Gaza Strip. Armed groups are exploiting the weakness of the regime in Cairo, and Israel’s reluctance to take military action against them in Egyptian territory for fear off further eroding Egypt-Israel relations.
What is the role of Hamas?
Hamas’s overt participation in the fighting sets this latest escalation apart from other flare-ups in the past year. Since Operation Cast Lead – Israel’s major military operation against Hamas which ended in January 2009 – Hamas has been largely deterred from attacking Israel directly. Recent months have seen a gradual increase in the numbers of rockets fired from smaller factions, as well as an increase in activity by militants in the Sinai linked to groups in Gaza. However, Israel has persistently sought to hold Hamas authorities in Gaza responsible for all attacks emanating from the Strip, which is why twice in June Israel attacked Hamas targets in response to attacks from smaller factions against Israel.
Hamas’s decision to respond openly with rocket fire against Israel may indicate that the group feels under increased pressure to participate in the violence, having faced criticism for staying out of recent rounds. Hamas may also have been influenced by a belief that Israel would avoid a major response against it whilst the situation in Cairo was so uncertain. A major escalation of violence between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip would have played into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, and embarrassed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which continues to cooperate with Israel. Overall the leadership of Hamas within the Gaza Strip has been empowered by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in elections in Egypt, and has reasserted a hard-line agenda in recent public statements. However, Hamas is not interested in a major escalation. This is indicated by their decision to fire only short range projectiles, at what they defined as “military installations” close to the border, as opposed to longer range rockets at major population centres.
What are Israel’s dilemmas in dealing with this new regional challenge?
Israel’s priority is to ensure normal life for the approximately one million Israelis who live within range of rocket fire from Gaza. This creates a strong incentive to maintain a situation of calm and avoid escalation. At the same time, Israel feels compelled to retaliate against armed groups in the Gaza Strip when attacks are launched against it from either Gaza or the Sinai, and to pressure Hamas to reign in its own forces as well as those of other factions.
Israel’s strong desire to maintain its peace treaty with Egypt means that despite threats emanating from the Sinai, Israel has avoided military action in the Egyptian controlled peninsula itself. When Israeli forces did pursue the perpetrators of the August 2011 attacks into Egyptian territory, they inadvertently killed five Egyptian border police. This event sparked anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo, and a month later violent demonstrators stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo. Though Israel has allowed Egypt to deploy more forces in the Sinai, exceeding the terms of the peace treaty, the Egyptian authorities have not used this leeway to act decisively.
There is no reason to expect that stability will be restored now that the Egyptian elections are decided. Regardless of the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the power struggle in Cairo looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, and as long as it does, Israel will have to find ways to manage threats from an unstable southern border. Israel is already investing in a sophisticated fence to run the length of its border with Egypt to help prevent cross-border attacks and the infiltration of illegal African migrants. It is deploying more of its Iron Dome missile defence batteries to intercept rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. The IDF is also investing in greater efforts to collect intelligence in the Sinai. But despite Israel’s efforts, the deep-rooted problems facing the Sinai must be addressed by Egypt with international support.
Increased lawlessness in the Sinai clearly poses a threat to Israel and has the constant potential to trigger escalations between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip. But more than that, the peninsula’s strategically important location, including its proximity to the Suez Canal, makes it of importance also for Western countries.
As BICOM Senior Research Associate Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog argued in a recent BICOM paper, concentrated international effort is required to return stability to the area. The international community will need to impress on the authorities in Cairo the importance of restoring stability to the Sinai, both by regaining military control over armed groups, and by investing in the integration of its disgruntled Bedouin population into mainstream Egyptian society.