The Gaza border has been heating up recently. In the past week, a rocket was launched at Israel from the Strip, the IDF conducted multiple retaliatory strikes against the territory’s Hamas rulers, at least four rockets were fired at Eilat by the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula and an explosion in a smuggling tunnel between Israel and Gaza killed two Palestinian men.
All this occurred amid an ongoing, bloody war between Egyptian military forces and the Islamic State, IS’s tense-but-holding cooperation with Hamas and rumors of potential rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt, and Israel’s precarious détente with Hamas in Gaza.
Of the week’s incidents, the Islamic State’s rocket attack on Eilat is exceptional. While comparatively rare since the 2014 Gaza war, the Strip saw flare-ups last October and August, after fringe salafist groups fired rockets at Israel and the IDF responded with aerial and tank bombardments.
However, attacks against Israel from the Islamic State in Sinai — formerly the group known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis — are far less common, happening perhaps once or twice a year since the group changed its name in 2014.
In this week’s attack, at least four rockets were fired towards Eilat. Three were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense battery, though fragments rained down on the city. The fourth struck an open field.
In a statement, the group said it attacked Israel “in order to teach the Jews and the crusaders that a proxy war will not avail them of anything.”
This “proxy war” reference was likely an allusion to the ongoing cooperation between Israel and Egypt during the latter’s fight against the Islamic State in Sinai.
Israel has frequently given its permission to the Egyptian military to bring additional troops into the Sinai in order to fight the terrorist group, as is required by the two country’s peace agreements. The Israeli military has also admitted to some intelligence sharing, and foreign media has reported that Israeli aircraft have even taken part in the fight directly.
“The future will be more calamitous with Allah’s permission,” the group also warned in its statement.
But despite the recent attack and threats made by the group, the IDF and independent military analysts say an impending large-scale confrontation between Israel and the IS-affiliate is not likely.
Israel is certainly on the IS list of targets, but the terrorist group is simply far too busy fighting Egyptian forces to open another front with the Jewish state, according to an Israeli intelligence officer in the IDF Southern Command.
“They always say, ‘Just wait, we’re coming for you, [Israel],'” the officer said in a conversation with The Times of Israel before the Eilat rocket attack.
But, he noted, IS views Muslims who do not follow their radical, distorted view of Islam as blasphemers and worse than non-Muslims. “That’s true not only of the Sinai Province, but of the entire Islamic State,” the officer said.
The intelligence official referenced a video released by the group in August. “In the 35-minute video, they spoke about the Jews for four or five minutes. So you can understand the proportion,” he said.
An inconvenient attack
In December IS in Sinai fired at least two rockets towards the Nitzana Border Crossing, an area that is controlled by both Israeli and Egyptian forces. But in that incident it was not entirely clear who the group was targeting — Israel or Egypt, the intelligence officer said.
Conversely, the Eilat attack had a clear target, and was no crime of opportunity, according to a US analyst.
The Islamic State in Sinai could more accurately be called the Islamic State in northern Sinai, as that is the area in which it operates. Yet a squad from the group loaded a number of Grad rockets — the longest-range missiles they possess — onto a vehicle and traveled hundreds of kilometers south, through an area monitored by Israel and controlled on the ground by Egyptian forces in order to carry out the attack, noted Zack Gold, a nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council who focuses on the Sinai region.
Why then did IS in Sinai — a group made up of reportedly less than 1,000 members — provoke Israel with a barrage of some four rockets at Israel’s southernmost city? No definitive answer has emerged in the day-and-a-half since the attack. But analysts offered two distinct — though somewhat overlapping — explanations for the rocket fire.
Aviad Mendelboim, a research assistant at the Tel Aviv University-based Institute for National Security Studies think tank, noted the group has made something of a comeback since suffering a number of defeats in the summer and fall of 2016.
In that context, the Eilat attack can be seen as the organization seeking to show off its power.
Israel might not be “at the top of list” of enemies, Mendelboim said, “but it definitely has a respectable position.”
To Gold, the rationale behind the barrage is more straightforward: “It’s good propaganda.”
The Southern Command intelligence officer, though he spoke before the attack, made a similar point. “There’s always a threat. Threatening the Jews it always good. It always sells,” the officer said.
IS in Sinai and its previous iterations have been waging a vicious war with Egyptian troops since 2011. In the past year or so, that conflict has turned in favor of Egypt, but it is far from won.
In August the head of the group, Abu Duaa al-Ansari, was killed in an airstrike. Two months later, on October 15, approximately 100 members were killed by Egyptian forces, after the group carried out an attack on a checkpoint that killed 12 soldiers. And a week after that, another 70 jihadists were killed in aerial bombardments near Rafah, in the northern Sinai.
Though analysts believe IS in Sinai is under pressure from Egyptian forces, having lost large numbers of troops and munitions, Mendelboim said the group has started to change tactics and has become “more efficient.”
Gold noted that whereas before the group might have tried to carry out a small number of large-scale attacks that killed dozens of Egyptian police and military, they now go for many smaller attacks that, in the aggregate, result in the same overall number of casualties.
“Since July, they’ve changed their modus operandi. They’re probably killing as many Egyptian soldiers as they were in 2015, they’re just doing it in smaller attacks,” Gold said.
According to Mendelboim, those smaller but accumulating achievements may have caused the group to feel emboldened and thus eager for a one-off clash with Israel.
Gold, meanwhile, said that while the group’s recent bounce-backs from its battlefield losses last year might have played a role, he believed that this attack had more to do with messaging than hubris.
“There’s a reason for them to show ‘we’re still here,'” Gold said.
An attack on Israel is liable to get international recognition — indeed the incident garnered headlines the world over — and so might have been a way for commanders in Sinai to raise the group’s profile within the Islamic State itself.
Gold, describing what he believed to be group leaders’ thinking, said: “‘If there’s money in the caliphate to spread around, we should get some of that.'”
All three interview subjects — the IDF official, Gold and Mendelboim — said the recent attack was not necessarily a sign of things to come. Both tactically and philosophically, IS has its attentions turned to the rest of the Middle East and to Europe, where it can carry out attacks to much greater recognition. A full strategic reversal does not seem to be in the cards, though sporadic attacks against the Jewish state may occur.
“Will the Sinai Province suddenly take the position that Israel’s going to be the principal target and that they’ll start marching towards al-Quds? No,” the intelligence officer said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
“But does the Islamic State in Sinai have an ability to hurt Israel? Yes.”
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