Egypt walks the wire in denying Israeli strike on Sinai

Developments on Israel’s southern border may be encouraging, insofar as the Egyptians appear willing to target jihadists

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Egyptian army soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle, backed by a helicopter gunship, during a sweep through villages in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, in May 2013. (AP)
Egyptian army soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle, backed by a helicopter gunship, during a sweep through villages in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, in May 2013. (AP)

Contradicting earlier reports, the Egyptian army spokesman said late Friday that there was no truth to reports of an Israeli drone attack on Egyptian soil. He also claimed there was no coordination at all between Israeli and Egyptian authorities with regard to what he termed “explosions in the Rafah region.”

The circumstances surrounding the strike that occurred early Friday evening near Rafah in the northern Sinai Peninsula, in which (it appears) that five Islamic terrorists were killed, were not immediately clear. Particularly elusive were the facts regarding who perpetrated the strike. Initial reports published by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency and then later by AP cited Egyptian officials in El-Arish who said that an Israeli drone fired missiles at a storage site for long-range missiles. They said the strike took place near the Kerem Hashalom crossing, and in the triangle between the Israeli, Egyptian and Gazan border.

According to those reports, the five individuals killed belonged to one of the jihadist groups operating in the peninsula. Groups that concurrently target the Egyptian military and Israel.

Senior Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny any connection between the IDF and the strike. They only spoke in general terms about the continuing Egyptian campaign in the Sinai against al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations.

If there was an Israeli strike on Egyptian territory, it would signal the first time that Israel has operated (openly) there since the signing of the peace treaty between the two countries in 1979. However, in the hours following the purported strike, there was a concerted Egyptian effort to restore calm. Egyptian sources told AP that the strike was conducted in coordination between Tel Aviv and Cairo.

A senior Egyptian official who spoke to The Times of Israel insisted it wasn’t Israel that struck the Global Jihad cell. According to him, Egyptian military helicopters were responsible for the strike, as part of Egypt’s effort to prevent terrorists from firing at Israel.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident was related to Egyptian warnings conveyed Thursday to Israel that led to the temporary closure of the Eilat airport. According to him, the strike was successful in neutralizing the very same cell that sought to attack Israel.

And then, just before 10 p.m. local time, came Egypt’s official denial of any Israeli strike on the Sinai.

The Egyptian reassurances can be attributed also to a desire to restore calm in Cairo. Precisely as reports began leaking out about an alleged Israeli attack, tens of thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were protesting across Egypt against the new government, and against the military’s involvement in politics.

It can be assumed that reports of an Israeli strike on sovereign Egyptian territory would not be useful to the military. On the Israeli side, it is evident that officials in recent days have sought to keep a low profile regarding security coordination between the two countries.

Either way, an examination of the events in the Sinai and in other arenas leads to several conclusions, some of them positive for Israel, others worrying.

Israel finds itself, on its southern and northern borders, facing a growing threat from organizations that have adopted al-Qaeda’s ideology.

The number of Global Jihadists in Syria is growing, and their influence is growing in relation to other opposition groups in the country. The emerging reality for Israel in the north is that the alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad at this point seems to be worse than the status quo ante.

The relatively positive news comes from the Sinai. There may be a considerable effort among Global Jihadists to attack Israel from the area. However, these terrorists have in recent weeks been targeted for elimination by the Egyptian army.

According to Cairo, the military has been successful in killing some 60 jihadists, of the several hundred that are estimated to be present in the peninsula.

Egypt’s campaign in the Sinai includes 11 infantry battalions along with special forces, a tank battalion, and Egyptian air force and intelligence units.

The difference between the current situation and the days of “the friend,” deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak, is that the real effort on the part of the Egyptians hasn’t stopped despite other difficult problems that the army is currently tackling.

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