This is a summary of a briefing for journalists given by the Jerusalem Post’s military and defence analyst Yaakov Katz on Monday 6 February, following a terrorist infiltration attempt into Israel from the Sinai.
- The attack was a serious, very sophisticated and ambitious, with serious planning involved.
- At this stage it is still difficult to work out who was behind the attack, but according to officers within Israeli military intelligence, Bedouin from the Sinai were likely behind this most recent attack and other attacks emanating from the Peninsula.
- The terrorists, planning and the attack all emanated from the Sinai, which creates serious tactical and strategic dilemmas for Israel’s security planners.
- The killing of up to 16 Egyptian policemen also creates dilemmas for Egypt’s new government and elected President Mohammed Mursi. The attack represents a potential turning point for Egypt: either the military will attempt to retake control of the Sinai or it will let the Peninsula remain a safe haven for al-Qaeda affiliated jihadi terrorist groups, which are reportedly operating there.
- A group of 35 armed-men broke into an Egyptian military base near Rafah, killing up to 16 policemen and stealing a pick-up truck and an armoured vehicle. The pick-up truck eventually exploded near the Kerem Shalom crossing, whilst the remaining vehicle headed towards Israel.
- After driving two kilometres inside Israel, the second vehicle was hit by an Israeli aircraft and a shell from a tank, killing five of the terrorist inside.
- Two of the terrorist were able to make it out before the vehicle was targeted but after a short gunfight, were killed.
- Most of the men were heavily armed and wore suicide belts. The IDF believes their target was to infiltrate either an IDF base or a nearby town to kill as many people as possible.
Who was behind the attack?
- At this stage it is still difficult to tell who was behind the attack, but according to officers within Israeli military intelligence, Bedouin from the Sinai were likely behind this most recent attack and other attacks emanating from the Peninsula.
- For example, the terrorist infiltration on 18 June, which killed an Israeli-Arab construction worker, was carried out by Saudis and Egyptian Bedouin. In addition, the attack last August – where a terrorist cell crossed from the Sinai into Israel killing eight Israelis – was carried out by Egyptian Bedouin.
- The involvement of Egyptian Bedouin is an irregular development. In the past these sort of terrorist attacks have been carried out by Palestinians going from Gaza to Egypt and from there infiltrating into Israel. However, it now seems that groups in Gaza are working by proxies – hiring local Sinai Bedouin mercenaries who have the weapons and capability to carry out attacks.
- Another peculiar feature of the attack was the wearing of suicide belts by the armed-group. The fact that the six terrorist killed inside Israel were willing to sacrifice their lives to kill Israelis suggest that there was some ideological motivation behind the attack and not just financial gain.
- It is unlikely that Hamas was behind the attack, or even Islamic Jihad. On Sunday a terrorist cell inside Gaza was targeted and there was no retaliation. This is a clear indication that the main groups within Gaza are not interested in an escalation with Israel at the moment.
- What we are seeing is splinter groups in Gaza joining up with global jihadist, as they are frustrated with Hamas for not staying true to the path of ‘resistance’. Since Operation Cast Lead in 2009 Hamas has not been interested in a large scale confrontation with Israel. This desire to avoid confrontation has become even more acute with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, with Hamas and other groups acknowledging a de-facto truce with Israel those operatives who enlisted to fight are splintering off.
What are Israel’s dilemmas?
- The assailants, planning and the attack all emanated from the Sinai, which creates serious tactical and strategic dilemmas for Israel’s security officials.
- One serious problem for Israeli defence planners is the lack of intelligence collection methods available to Israel in the Sinai. Whilst Israel has built up its collection methods within Gaza over time, the Sinai Peninsula has not been an intelligence priority for the IDF for some time.
- There is a stark contrast between the IDF’s operational latitude in the Gaza Strip from that in the Sinai. For example, on 5 August, after receiving good intelligence, Israel’s air force targeted a motorbike carrying two Popular Resistance Committees members – Ahmad Sai Ismail and Nadi Okhal – in the southern Gaza Strip. However, despite intelligence indicating an attack before the border storming on 6 August, the IDF could not intercept the vehicles whilst they were in Egyptian territory, due to diplomatic repercussions.
- It is not difficult to understand Israel’s limited ability to respond in the Peninsula. If Israel were to strike a target in the Sinai it would not only violate Egyptian sovereignty, but could also put an end to Israel and Egypt’s peace treaty and spark demonstrations in Cairo.
What are the consequences for Egypt?
- The killing of up to 16 Egyptian policemen also creates dilemmas for Egypt’s new government and elected President Mohammed Mursi. Up until the attack, Egypt could choose to ignore the growing lawlessness and expanding terrorist infrastructure in the distant and sparsely populated Peninsula.
- The attack on 6 August, therefore, represents a potential turning point for Egypt: either the military will attempt to retake control of the Sinai or it will let the Peninsula remain a safe haven for al-Qaeda affiliated global jihad terrorist groups, which are reportedly operating there.
- It is unlikely that Egypt will take the necessary steps to restore law and order to the Peninsula. Egypt’s leaders will initially come out with tough rhetoric, but behind the scenes Egyptian officials will place the onus on Israel to permit a larger military presence on its border.
- According to provisions within the Egypt-Israel 1979 peace treaty, the Peninsula is a demilitarised zone and Egypt is only allowed to have a police presence directly along the border. However, following a terrorist attack in August last year launched from the Peninsula Israel acquiesced to an Egyptian request for greater troop deployments in the Sinai. Operation Eagle was launched and over 2,500 troops and 250 armoured cars were sent to key locations in the Sinai.
- Senior Israeli defence officials assess that Egypt’s current troop levels are more than enough to restore order and believe that the problem is not one of manpower but political will. This week’s attack may jolt Egypt into action, but following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak the Egyptian military has had other priorities – with restoring order to the Sinai not being at the top of the list.