Defusing a Bomb

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Is the Egyptian Army your friend on Facebook? I’m guessing it isn’t. If it were, you would have been informed last week of its achievements in the Sinai Peninsula over the past month  – 103 arrests, and the destruction of 102 tunnels, 40 underground fuel storage tanks and four houses used by extremists.

These achievements are the result of a concentrated effort by the Egyptian Army against the Jihadist terrorist cells which have made this lawless and unruly region a base of operations against the Egyptian Army and Israel. The forces moved into Sinai by the Egyptian Army to conduct these operations are considerable, both in quality and quantity, and necessitated Israel’s consent according to the 1979 peace agreement between the two countries. Indeed, the mutual danger posed by the various militant groups in Sinai has been the catalyst for an unprecedented level of cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian security establishments. Although the cooperation itself is not new, the level is.

It is now believed that there are around 3,000 Jihadist militants operating in Sinai, many of whom are affiliated with Al-Qaeda. They are an amalgamation of native Bedouin extremists, foreign Salafist elements, and even Palestinian factions entering Sinai from the Gaza strip.  Their presence has already manifested itself into terrorist attacks against Egyptian bases and facilities, and increasingly – an extending list of Israeli targets: the attack on Route 12 (the road running north to south on the border between the two countries) two years ago, the suicide attack on the border near Rafah a year ago, and intermittent launching of missiles on the city of Eilat, to mention a few.

This situation holds extreme dangers and risks for Egypt, Israel, and the entire region.

Imagine the following scenarios: A serious attack is conducted from Sinai against Israel, by an extreme Palestinian group originating from Gaza (e.g. Islamic Jihad). Israel’s subsequent retaliation then escalates to a full scaled conflict with Hamas. Say goodbye to the resumed peace process. Or, Israel receives intelligence on an impending attack against Eilat and decides to strike on Egyptian territory. Say goodbye to the peace treaty with Egypt.  For Egypt, the Sinai is a dark harbinger of what could follow elsewhere in Egypt if the interim government fails to resolve its standoff with the Islamist protesters camped out in Cairo. In short, should Egypt lose its battles in Sinai, we all lose.

The airstrike that killed five suspected militants and destroyed a rocket launcher on Friday, crystallizes these dangers. According to foreign reports, including Egyptian and Palestinian sources, Israel attacked militants belonging to an Al Qaeda affiliated organization, five kilometers from the border with Israel and on Egyptian soil, who were about to launch a missile into Israel. The implications of this action are serious – for only the second time since the peace accords were signed in 1979, Israel launched an attack on Egyptian territory.

Believing these reports, we can only assume that the Egyptians were not informed beforehand – the decision to pull the trigger in these kind of attacks is usually made in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Also, it is highly doubtful that Israel would decide to share sensitive intelligence info, a) because it is traditionally opposed to doing so, and b) because of the slim chances that the Egyptians would have approved the action. Fearing that word of the consent given to Israel would eventually leak out, and also because of the important matter of national honor, there is no way the Egyptians would have given the green light for an Israeli attack on its territory. This is the reason why there will never be an admission by the Egyptians that Israel was responsible, and it is also the reason why the Israelis are uncharacteristically quiet about it. The Egyptian Army is embroiled in a deadly standoff in Cairo with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the last thing it needs are accusations it facilitated an Israeli attack on Egyptian territory.

The emerging picture is of an extremely sensitive and complex situation. For Egypt, controlling the Sinai is a matter of retaining sovereignty and national honor. For Israel, it is a matter of life and death. To defuse this ticking bomb, it is crucial that Israel and Egypt continue to cooperate on every possible level, and they would be wise to do so while keeping quiet about it. After all, the Egyptians and Israelis alike, do not need to know the details, but would definitely appreciate a job well done! The official Egyptian version claims responsibility for the Friday airstrike. Amen to that.

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