Israel has few options for rocket fire from Egypt (AP) Associated Press) By TIA GOLDENBERG JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 04/05/12 12:08 pm ET)
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JERUSALEM – Israel´s prime minister on Thursday warned that Egypt´s
Sinai desert is becoming a "terror zone" and vowed to strike at
militants there after a rocket fired from the area hit a southern
Israeli resort town.
The tough talk, however, was tempered by Israel´s desire not to
disturb the already fraught relationship with Egypt. Israeli
officials acknowledged their options are limited as the new
government in Egypt — one of Israel´s few allies in the Arab world —
tries to secure its sovereignty over the mountainous Sinai Peninsula.
Thursdays´ rocket attack, the first on Eilat in nearly two years,
raised new Israeli concerns about militant activity in Sinai,
particularly since the fall of Hosni Mubarak´s regime last year.
Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned of a power vacuum
in Egypt and say that Islamic militants, including al-Qaida, have
stepped up their activity in Sinai and are now active on Israel´s
"We are seeing now with Eilat that the Sinai Peninsula is turning
into a terror zone," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "We will
strike at those who attack us. There can be no immunity for
terrorism; it must be fought and we are doing so."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened to "strike those
responsible for firing (the Grad rocket) at Eilat."
No injuries were reported in the overnight strike against Eilat, a
normally tranquil Red Sea vacation spot that is set to welcome
thousands of visitors this weekend for the Passover holiday.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and Egypt denied the
attack was launched from its territory. "The chief of security of
southern Sinai has already denied that the rocket was fired from the
Sinai territory," Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr told
reporters in Cairo.
But Israel military officials, citing intelligence, said all signs
were that the rocket had been fired from Egypt. It would be the third
such time since 2010 that militants in Egypt have fired rockets
Israel has warned of growing lawlessness in Sinai following the
uprising last year that overthrew Mubarak´s regime.
Sensing the growing threat, Israel has increased its surveillance on
the Egyptian border and is building an electronic barrier along the
230 kilometer (150 mile) frontier in a bid to keep out militants and
illegal migrants. It is expected to be completed by the end of the
But the fence cannot protect southern Israel from rockets, a gap that
Netanyahu pointed out on Thursday.
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, separated by a border fence
from Israel, have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in recent
years. Israel has responded to Gaza rocket fire with military
reprisals and the deployment of a rocket-interception system known as
Rocket fire from Egypt is far rarer, and it is not clear if Israel
plans to move the anti-rocket system, which is still in its infancy
and expensive to deploy, to the border with Egypt.
Thursday´s attack left Israel in a delicate position: absorbing
hostile fire from a neighboring country but having few options to
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said Israel´s hands
are tied until a government takes shape in Cairo that is ready and
able to tackle the militancy in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel´s
historic peace agreement with Egypt is a cornerstone of Israeli
security policy, and Israel cannot do anything that might sabotage
"Israel has no choice but to wait," he said.
An Israeli official echoed those limitations.
"We will fight terror, of course, but we don´t intend to enter
Egyptian territory. That´s not an option," said the official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to
discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue with the press. "We can talk
to (the Egyptians), but that´s it."
Both Shaked and the official were confident Egypt would work to rein
in anarchy in Sinai, but that it would take time before it could do
so. Egypt votes for a new president in May.
No injuries were reported in Thursday´s incident. But it was part of
a string of attacks believed to have been launched from Sinai over
the past year years.
Last August, gunmen from Sinai sneaked into Israel and ambushed
vehicles on a desert highway, killing eight Israelis. Three Egyptian
soldiers were killed in Israel´s subsequent hunt for the militants,
causing a diplomatic crisis that ended with an Israeli apology. It is
unclear if Israeli soldiers crossed the border in their chase.
That incident suggested that Gaza militants with their allies in
neighboring Sinai were exploiting Egypt´s political turmoil to open a
new front against Israel.
It also highlighted the delicate balance Israel must maintain between
trying to defend its border and protect its relationship with Egypt.
Rockets last hit Eilat and the nearby Jordanian town of Aqaba in
August 2010, killing one person and wounding four. In April of that
year, two rockets landed in Aqaba and the remains of one were found
in the waters off Eilat.
Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel
in 1979. After Mubarak´s fall and with the rise of Islamist parties
who traditionally view Israel with hostility, Israel has become
concerned that the accord may be under threat.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in Egypt´s parliament, does
not openly oppose the peace deal, but has said it would consider
amending the pact to allow more Egyptian troops along the border with
Israel. The deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai is limited under
the 1979 deal.
Israel´s insistence that the peninsula be significantly demilitarized
was a key aspect of the 1979 peace deal.
Today, however, this provision makes it difficult for Israel itself
to demand the Egyptians do a better job of policing the vast desert
triangle that separates Asia from Africa. In the aftermath of
Mubarak´s ouster, Israel permitted Egypt to send in more troops than
the 750 allowed under the treaty. (© 2012 The Associated Press
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