Sinai attack presents dilemma for Israel (GUARDIAN UK) Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem 08/07/12)
GUARDIAN UK Articles-Index-Top
Israeli response to fatal cross-border attack by militants is
restrained by delicate political relations with Egypt
The cross-border attack on Israel by militants in the Egyptian Sinai
was a highly ambitious and well-planned assault that has left Israeli
authorities more certain than ever that the area is out of control –
but also with a major dilemma over how to respond.
A serious attack, potentially resulting in the deaths of many
Israelis living in small communities near the border, was narrowly
averted, according to senior officials.
After killing about 15 Egyptian security personnel at a base in the
border town of Rafah, the militants used a pickup truck filled with
explosives to breach the Egypt-Israel border, then drove an armoured
vehicle more than a mile into Israel before being struck by a missile
fired from an Israeli military plane. Up to eight militants were
They were heavily armed and, significantly, were wearing suicide
belts, thought to indicate a strong ideological motivation for the
attack. A statement from the Egyptian military said 35 militants were
involved and "elements from the Gaza Strip" aided the attack by
firing rockets, suggesting co-ordination between Palestinian and
Israel´s alarm at the mounting chaos and violence in Sinai has been
growing steadily since their ally, the former president Hosni
Mubarak, was ousted in the Egyptian revolution 18 months ago. As well
as three serious cross-border attacks – one last August in which
eight Israelis were killed, one in June in which an Israeli
construction worker died and the one on Sunday evening – a pipeline
supplying gas to Israel has been blown up more than a dozen times.
The impoverished and neglected Sinai region has been a breeding
ground for resentment and radicalism among its largely Bedouin
inhabitants for years. But Israel says it now detects the presence
of "global jihad" militants and groups, some loosely connected to al-
"There is a problem with Bedouin tribes drifting towards a
fundamentalist Islamic ideology, making themselves part of the
Islamic jihad movement, by which I mean a loose network of small
terror organisations trying to fight the current order," said Major
General Dan Harel, former deputy chief of staff for the Israel
One of the difficulties Israel faces is intelligence-gathering across
"Israel has a good hold on what´s happening in Gaza" as a result of
close monitoring via aerial drones and human intelligence, said
Yaakov Katz, a journalist specialising in defence and military
affairs. "Sinai is much more difficult."
Even so, Israeli military intelligence had advance indication that an
attack was imminent and responded swiftly when it was launched,
thwarting an extremely serious incident, according to the defence
minister, Ehud Barak. In Gaza, such intelligence would have resulted
in a pre-emptive strike on a militant cell planning an attack – an
option simply not available across the Egyptian border.
Assuming that Israel shared its intelligence with its Egyptian
counterparts, the Israeli military distrusts its neighbour´s
willingness to take effective action to rein in militants in Sinai
and exert a grip on the area. That may now change.
"I hope this will be a wake-up call for Egypt regarding the necessity
to be sharp and efficient on their side," said Barak while touring
the site of the attack on Monday morning.
Cairo cannot afford to ignore the loss of more than a dozen Egyptian
soldiers. According to Katz, Mohammed Morsi, the new Muslim
Brotherhood president of Egypt, "is going to have to deal with this.
Up until now he could pretend this wasn´t a big problem. But this
could be a turning point. Is [the government] going to take control
or allow [the region] to remain a safe haven for al-Qaida and global
And, indeed, within hours of the attack, Morsi was pledging
to "impose full control" on Sinai, later sending helicopter gunships
to join a security sweep of the area.
Israel, however, does not like to outsource its security – and does
not usually shy away from taking action on foreign territory to
protect its citizens and interests.
But this is a delicate situation. Since Israel and Egypt signed a
peace treaty in 1979, Sinai has been a demilitarised zone, with tight
restrictions on troops on the ground. Israel is unlikely to take
steps which could threaten the treaty´s durability, especially in the
context of its concerns over the post-revolution government´s
commitment to the accord.
"Israel has strategic interests in keeping the peace treaty. This is
why we´re not attacking on Egyptian soil and instead conveying alerts
we have to the Egyptian authorities in the hope they will deal with
it," Harel said.
The repercussions of Israeli action across the border would be
significant, Katz said.
"The end of the peace treaty, demonstrations throughout Egypt, our
ambassador being kicked out of Cairo? Israel´s ability to respond is
After Israeli forces shot dead five Egyptian security personnel on
Egyptian soil after last August´s cross-border attack, anti-Israel
sentiment rose markedly and the Israeli embassy in Cairo came under
But some are urging a robust response. According to Alex Fishman, the
defence analyst for Israel´s biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth
Ahronoth, the time for direct action is drawing closer.
"The political leadership in Israel … is being respectful of Egyptian
honour, afraid to sneeze next to them or demand, heaven forbid, that
they do anything," he wrote. "There will be no choice: Israel is
approaching the point at which it will have to deal with Sinai on its
own, with everything this entails, including how it will affect the
relationship with Egypt. Otherwise there will be a bloodbath here in
a style we have not seen before." (guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and
Media Limited 2012 08/07/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY