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Analysis

For Egyptian forces, executions will only bring more resolve

The killing of 25 policemen in the Sinai will likely spur Cairo to redouble its efforts against terror — just as Israel did after losing 13 soldiers in a 2002 West Bank operation

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.

An Egyptian army soldier takes his position on top of an armored vehicle while guarding an entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday, August 16. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
An Egyptian army soldier takes his position on top of an armored vehicle while guarding an entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday, August 16. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

The terror attack in the Sinai Peninsula Monday morning, which left 25 Egyptian policemen dead, dealt a serious blow to the Egyptian army’s morale.

Its honor has been tarnished, and every Egyptian soldier who arrives in the heated-up Sinai area now knows just how much danger his life is in.

However, in the long term, no matter how cynical it sounds, the attack will likely be used by the authorities in Cairo to prove to the Egyptian public, and the international community, the depth of the challenge the army is facing today in Sinai.

Since the ousting of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime, there has been an increase in the number of attacks on soldiers in the peninsula, something that is not lost on the Egyptian public. Just last week — in the space of 48 hours — 17 members of the Egyptian security forces were killed.

The nature of the grave terrorist threat was most clearly demonstrated Monday morning, and it will be used by the regime to tie the Muslim Brotherhood to terrorists who apparently executed the 25 Egyptian soldiers after they had overpowered them.

Rather than sap the army of the will to fight, Egypt’s soldiers may actually now be more motivated to defeat their enemies in the Sinai, much as Israel rebounded from the deaths of 13 reservists during 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield during the Jenin “massacre” that never was.

In that case, the IDF responded to the deaths by redoubling its resolve and sending in even more forces to crush the terror stronghold in the West Bank refugee camp at the height of the Second Intifada.

It can likewise be assumed that the Egyptian army will increase its forces in the Sinai and in many ways, takes the gloves off.

A senior official in the Egyptian security apparatus explained not so long ago, in a private conversation, that one of the most difficult problems for the army to grapple with in the Sinai is the question of where to operate.

It is no secret that armed elements in the Sinai are clustered around two centers: the central mountainous region, which provides plenty of hiding places for the Jihadists; and the northeast region, an area that is relatively crowded, in cities like Rafah, el-Arish, and Sheikh Zweid.

The location of Monday morning’s attack, near the border town of Rafah, is not coincidental. It is the same area where, this time last year, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by terrorists, who then tried to storm the Israeli border, with partial success.

The area is problematic for the army, since Jihadists can easily conceal themselves among the local population, who, in most cases, help and support them.

The Bedouin living in those towns have, over the years, became more religious, and more and more on the side of the Palestinians, who always viewed the Egyptian army as unfriendly. It can be assumed that the Jihadists in the area are in contact with the population on the other side of the border, in Hamas-run Gaza; hence the army’s decision to once again close the Rafah crossing.

At the end of the day, the Egyptian army operating in Sinai doesn’t have many choices. It needs to crush the Jihadists, even if that means sending more forces to the peninsula at the price of more soldiers’ lives. The army has superior numbers with superior arms, but victory over terror there won’t come quickly — exactly like Operation Defensive Shield didn’t end West Bank terror.

It was only a beginning. So is the current Egyptian military campaign.

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