At sunset on Sunday, masked RPG-wielding gunmen traveling in two armored vehicles, thought to have been seized from a military checkpoint close to Rafah, attacked and killed 16 Egyptian guards close to the border between Gaza and Israel, wounding seven. Egyptian state television described the attackers as militants and “Jihadists.”
An Israeli army spokesperson blamed “a terrorist group” which planned to enter Israel to kidnap Israeli soldiers. One of their vehicles exploded; the other was destroyed by the Israeli air force on its side of the Karem Shalom Border Terminal, which Israel has since closed until further notice. Some of the militants were taken out by the Israeli military; an unknown number is believed to have fled into Egypt where they are being hunted by the Egyptian Army.
Israeli intelligence had wind that something similar was about to happen subsequent to the recent release of an Al Qaeda militant from a prison in Gaza. Israel has been urging the Egyptian government to tighten security in a region that has become increasingly lawless since the fall of the Mubarak regime. In anticipation, Israel’s National Security Counter-Terrorism Bureau earlier warned Israeli tourists against traveling to the Sinai Peninsula. “Terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip and additional elements are actively planning to perpetrate terrorist attacks, especially abductions, against Israeli tourists in Sinai in the immediate term,” read the advice.
Tel-Aviv’s concern has resulted in a battery of its Iron Dome anti-missile system being deployed close to Israel’s southernmost town, the Red Sea resort of Eilat as well as the construction of a steel barrier to secure its southern border with Egypt.
Unfortunately, Egyptian security forces weren’t as alert. The attackers caught them unawares as they were breaking their fast. This security lapse constitutes an embarrassment for the Egyptian military which should have prepared for all eventualities following numerous attacks on Egyptian soldiers by global militants believed to have flocked to the area under the protection of Bedouin tribes and who have admitted responsibility for sabotaging Egyptian gas pipelines supplying Israel.
It’s certainly unlikely that Sunday’s attackers have links to Hamas given the amicable relationship between the Gaza leadership and the new Egyptian government led by a president rooted to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Hamas, that hopes that President Mursi will bless the opening of the Rafah crossing, quickly condemned “the ugly crime against Egyptian soldiers” and sent its condolences. However, some theorize that an international Jihadist cell acted in retaliation for an IAF strike on two members of the Popular Resistance Committees in Rafah earlier in the day.
The incident has been a wake-up call for Egypt’s new president, who just a few days ago reassured foreign tourists in Luxor that Egypt is safer and more secure than ever and is open for all. He wasted no time in meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and expressed his determination, via his office, to punish the perpetrators. He needs to do a lot more.
The entire Sinai Peninsula must be cleansed not only of militant extremists but also of Bedouin gangs which have been kidnapping foreign visitors and African economic refugees en route to Israel in search of work for ransom.
Policing the Sinai that encompasses approximately 60,000 square kilometers — much of it mountainous desert — is a task requiring a cast of many thousands. The Camp David peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt limits the numbers of Egyptian troops permitted to be stationed within the peninsular but in August last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a request by Egyptian authorities to increase the fixed quota by 1,000 for the purpose of “restoring order.”
Obviously, the additional uniformed manpower hasn’t been effective, so it’s more than likely that
President Mursi will ask Israel’s permission to deploy substantially more. Whether or not Israel would comply is moot given that Israelis are less than comfortable having a neighbor so closely ideologically aligned with Hamas, whose leader is caught between his public pledge to maintain the peace treaty and demands from his Muslim Brotherhood base to either renegotiate its terms or cancel it completely.
On this occasion, no Israeli was killed or injured but that was more luck than judgment. If militants should succeed in their mission at some point in the future causing major Israeli casualties, the Netanyahu government would be forced to react either in cooperation with the Egyptians or unilaterally infringing Egypt’s sovereignty.
The situation is a tinderbox that must be immediately quenched before it erupts into an Israel-Egyptian armed conflict, which at this point neither side wants. Egypt, in particular, is battling too many post-revolution problems of its own, such as calming a population divided between Islamists and liberals/Copts and boosting a flagging economy, to engage in hostilities that would also negatively impact Cairo’s fragile relationship with Washington.
In the worst case scenario, if Tel Aviv perceives an exponentially heightened threat brewing across the border, it could move to retake the oil-and-gas rich Sinai that was occupied by Israel from 1967 until 1982. Israeli right-wingers have long regretted that Israel gave back the territory as one of the conditions of Camp David and could use the fact that it’s emerging as a terrorist hub to urge a march back in; never mind that Egyptians are just as much of a target as Israelis.
In short, Egypt’s new Cabinet and its partner SCAF must do everything within their power, to ensure that everyone in their country is subject to the rule of law, even if this means adopting an iron fist, else risk being branded by the international community as ‘a terrorist harboring state’. Hopefully, the new man in charge has now seen the writing on the wall and will act decisively to prevent such escalations.
This article was first published in Arab News on August 7, 2012