For Egypt, avenging Sinai attack may include striking Gaza

Cairo has already begun to punish the Islamic State for Wednesday’s massive assault; Hamas, which may have supplied anti-aircraft weapons to the militants, may not be immune either

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 soldiers stand guard on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, on May 26, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Egyptian soldiers stand guard on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, on May 26, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Throughout the night, the echoes of explosions from the Egyptian airstrikes on various targets in the northern Sinai Peninsula could be heard on the Israeli side of the border.

From the moment it began fighting back Wednesday, the Egyptian army, as is its wont, has not hesitated to use all the means at its disposal. After Wednesday morning’s multi-tiered attack in Sheikh Zuweid, the aggressiveness of its military response is likely to outstrip that of any previous operation.

Anything that moves in the coming days in Egypt’s Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and El-Arish areas will likely become a target of Egypt’s F-16s and Apache helicopters, in part in a bid to protect its ground forces from danger.

Right now, the Islamic State fighters and Muslim Brotherhood fighters are likely rubbing their hands together gleefully, despite the rivalry between them. These two rival organizations found a common enemy in the form of the Egyptian government and its chief, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

But the public wants revenge for the attacks that killed dozens of soldiers, who enjoy a particularly high standing in Egypt.

And this revenge will come.

It began Wednesday when the Egyptian army assassinated nine Muslim Brotherhood officials, including a former parliament member who, Egypt claims, was involved in attacks.

And it will continue with the executions of mid-level members of the organization who have received death sentences. And of course, heavy airstrikes on populated areas in Sinai. It can be said definitively that some of the Bedouin tribes and residents of north Sinai are collaborating with terrorists, and the army will retaliate.

Hamas will also pay a price. Only a few days ago, Egypt opened the Rafah crossing, in part due to the improvement of the security situation in Sinai. This will soon end. The army knows that some senior officials of the Hamas military wing, who operate without the approval of its political wing, are collaborating with the Islamic State in Sinai, mostly for financial renumeration.

According to an Egyptian source, some 200 militants took part in the attack, utilizing a large number of anti-aircraft weapons in the first hours, which necessitated the use of F-16 fighter jets instead of Apache helicopters as the Egyptians responded.

Those weapons, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, came in through the Gaza Strip.

Therefore, Egyptian airstrikes inside the Gaza Strip cannot be ruled out entirely.

But the heaviest price will be paid by Islamic State operatives in the Sinai, who carried out the brazen attack.

The terror operation carried out by the group (known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis up until a few months ago) on Wednesday morning was exceptional compared to previous attacks in the area.

The attack bore many similarities to assaults carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: a simultaneous attack on several fronts to generate confusion among the enemy’s troops with the use of suicide bombers, car bombs, anti-tank missiles, and of course ground troops, some of them dressed as Egyptian cops or soldiers.

The assault began around 7 a.m., when the soldiers were about to change guard, and many of them were likely still groggy after having only gone to sleep following a pre-dawn, pre-fast meal for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

The car bombs were set off first, sparking the initial melee. Next the armed fighters, dressed as soldiers or police officers, attacked with anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missile, machine guns, and lighter weapons.

At a certain stage of the attack, the IS fighters managed to capture Egyptian armored vehicles, sparking Israeli concerns that the militants could try to storm into Israeli territory, as they did during a similar attack three years ago, also during Ramadan.

This time, the terrorists did not attempt to infiltrate Israel, and were stopped after hours of clashes with the Egyptian army.

The number of losses on the Egyptian side is not clear. The official army statement said “only” 17 soldiers were killed, along with 100 IS fighters. Most reports, however, said 60-70 Egyptian soldiers were killed.

Black hole in intelligence

The heavy losses aren’t the main concern for the Egyptian army. In terms of the Sinai fighting, Egyptian military officials have in countless conversations assessed that the fight to wrest the Sinai from militant groups will result in heavy military losses.

What the attack lays bare, though, is the dearth of reliable intelligence in the peninsula. That 70-100 armed fighters managed to stage a simultaneous attack, and no Egyptian intelligence service provided an effective warning, is a “black hole” in intelligence.

Recently, the intelligence-gathering of the Egyptian army has improved on the level of image intelligence, but there are still significant holes in its human intelligence and signals intelligence.

And above all, the attack Wednesday and its timing form cracks in the image of Sissi as the strongman of the Middle East. The unprecedented attack by the Islamic State took place with the Egyptian army on high alert, two days after a Cairo bombing in which chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated, in what was obviously a targeted hit.

For two years, the Egyptian army has touted its gains in the fight against terror in the Sinai Peninsula. But the Islamic State continues not merely to survive, but to attack the army, and to a certain degree undermine the Egyptian military control over the northern peninsula.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed