Expecting IS attack, Israel closes Taba Crossing into Egypt
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'Better to ruin travel plans than endanger lives,' minister says

Expecting IS attack, Israel closes Taba Crossing into Egypt

In highly unusual move, Transportation Ministry bars Israelis from Sinai Peninsula, citing risk of terrorism

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israeli side of the Taba border crossing with Egypt (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The Israeli side of the Taba border crossing with Egypt (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In a highly unusual move, Israel shut down the Taba Crossing to Israelis trying to enter Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on the eve of Passover on Monday, citing fears of an imminent terror attack by the Islamic State terror group.

The crossing into Egypt will be closed from Monday morning, the Transportation Ministry announced. It is expected to reopen next Tuesday, April 18, with the end of the Passover holiday, but that decision will only be made following a security assessment, the ministry said.

Israelis currently in the Sinai Peninsula will still be able to return from Egypt and have, in fact, been encouraged to do so immediately, the ministry said.

Thousands of Israelis were expected to cross into the Sinai Peninsula for the Passover holiday.

The decision to forbid that move came a day after two lethal attacks on Egyptian churches by the terrorist group’s so-called Sinai Province.

The closure was ordered by Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, after discussion with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and other security officials, according to a ministry statement.

“This was an intelligence-security decision that was made in light of information that indicated plans to carry out a terror attack against tourists by Daesh’s Sinai Province,” Katz said, using the Arabic nickname for the Islamic State.

According to the minister, the Sinai Province is more motivated to carry out an attack now in light of the “pressure on Daesh in Syria and Iraq.”

This marks one of the few times the Taba Crossing was shut down since its opening in 1982, following the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal. The crossing was shut down in 2014, following a terror attack on the Egyptian side of the border. It was closed in 2011 when Israel also assessed there was a high risk of terror attacks.

On Sunday, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau released a statement encouraging all Israelis to forgo travel to the restive Sinai Peninsula, where the Islamic State has been waging a bloody war with Egyptian security forces and carrying out attacks against civilians.

In his statement, Katz said that while this additional warning was initially considered sufficient, “in light of the information and the seriousness of the threat, it was decided that it was better to ruin travel plans than endanger lives.”

Two church bombings, one in the city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria, killed at least 43 people earlier on Sunday, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility.

“The fatal terrorist attacks which took place today reflect once again the terror capability of the Islamic State,” the anti-terror bureau said in a statement on Sunday. “In light of the gravity of the threat, the anti-terror bureau advises Israelis currently in the Sinai to leave immediately and return to Israel.”

Last month, the bureau issued a similar warning against travel to the Sinai, a popular destination for Israelis over the week-long Passover holiday that starts at sunset on Monday, saying it indicated a concrete threat.

At the time, bureau head Eitan Ben-David said the closure of the Taba border crossing between Israel and Egypt was under consideration.

“We work on this all year round. We are watching what’s happening. We have no interest in crying wolf. We believe in what we say. The threat is grave,” Ben-David said at the time, highlighting the urgency of the bureau’s message.

The bureau said on Sunday that it was repeating the call in light of a fresh assessment and what it said was “further escalation in the severity of the threat posed to Israelis visiting Sinai and its immediate surroundings.”

Some 17,000 Israelis have visited Sinai so far this year, lured by sandy beaches, world-class snorkeling and resorts at cut-rate prices. Tens of thousands were expected to enter the peninsula during the Passover holiday, according to Channel 2 news.

A general view shows forensics collecting evidence at the site of a bomb blast which struck worshipers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, Egypt on April 9, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)
A general view shows forensics collecting evidence at the site of a bomb blast which struck worshipers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, Egypt on April 9, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office sent condolences to families and victims affected by the attack and called for a unified effort to tackle the ongoing threat of terrorism. “The world has to come together and fight terrorism everywhere,” the statement read.

The bombings added to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.

An Islamic State affiliate claimed a December suicide bombing at a Cairo church that killed about 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.

An Egyptian man looks at the damage at the scene of a bomb explosion that targeted the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo on December 11, 2016, in which at least 25 were killed. (Suhail Saleh/AFP Photo)
An Egyptian man looks at the damage at the scene of a bomb explosion that targeted the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo on December 11, 2016, in which at least 25 were killed. (Suhail Saleh/AFP Photo)

The militants recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, whom they regard as “infidels” empowering the West against Muslims.

Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.

The Sinai-based IS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner in the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people aboard and devastated Egypt’s tourism industry.

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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