Burned out cars near the Al-Rawdah mosque in the northern Sinai, where extremists killed more than 300 people. Photo by Mohamed Soliman, Reuters

Israel Loved the Sinai That Is Now a Killing Field


It was a bit of heaven. Now it’s a chunk of hell.

In the wilderness where the Hebrews received the Law, Muslim extremists are now killing one another.  And in Israel, hands are wringing and hearts are breaking.

In a grisly, familiar pattern, some 30 armed men entered the Sufi Al-Rawdah mosque in northern Sinai on Nov. 24, mechanically firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades into innocent worshipers of the mystic Islamic sect. More than 300 people were killed, including 27 children.

As tragic as this was, it’s long been typical in the once-sacred desert of Moses. ISIS has broken the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Since 1979, when Israel dutifully returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, the striking ridges and shady passes of the western Negev Desert remained an alluring gateway to the region’s pristine beaches.

For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful.

Israel took control of the Sinai in 1967 after the Six-Day War and then fell in love with the peninsula, turning it into an internationally revered haven of exploration and ecology. The Israelis built national parks, enriched dry riverbeds and cultivated osprey eggs so that birds — rather than missiles — could fly.

For some time, but especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful. The jagged landscape of reddish, biblical mountains casts long shadows and has grown very ominous. Where tourists, cartographers and mountain climbers once gathered, hyperintensive, bloody, fatwa-driven terrorist wars are turning the sacred sands bloody and gruesome.

As one who has visited and traveled extensively in the Sinai desert, I can attest to its awesome beauty, environmental fragility and the loving care Israel once provided. Egypt’s interest in Sinai’s coral reefs, wadis and mountain ranges has little to do with maintaining the region’s natural balance.

It’s undeniable that both nations have dealt with the Sinai first in terms of geopolitical strategy, but Israel went much further. The Jewish state was never the host nation for sectarian terror conflicts that have scattered the peaceful Bedouins and stained the sands of time. Israel loved the Sinai. I hiked, camped and broke bread there with the savvy and hospitable Bedouins who now live in fear and terror.

Like an unabashed foster parent, Israel cared for the crystal waters of Aqaba, maintained the organic equilibrium of the desert birds and fish, and explored and studied the remarkable wilderness canyons.

When I reached the crest of Mount Sinai in 1979 to perform bat mitzvah ceremonies for two American girls, I saw the sun rise over a terrestrial glory that resonated with both spiritual and physical transcendence. The Egyptians had risked its desert child four times with war; the Israelis had turned it to peace. Similarly, the place where Israel left behind greenhouses and schools in Gaza is now a Hamas missile launching pad.

If people of the world would learn more about Israel’s poignant connection to the land, they would at long last have a healthy insight into Israel’s real sensibilities.

Meanwhile, the tragic Islamic Winter has consumed the vanished Arab Spring and made bitter the winds of Sinai.


Rabbi Ben Kamin is the author of “I Don’t Know What to Believe: Making Spiritual Peace With Your Religion” and other books.

U.S. reviewing Sinai peacekeeper mission, looks at automating jobs


The U.S. military said on Tuesday it has formally notified Egypt and Israel that it is reviewing multinational peacekeeping operations in the insurgency-wracked Sinai, including ways to use technology to do the job of some U.S. troops there.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said using remote surveillance technology could eventually allow the United States to withdraw hundreds of its roughly 700 peacekeeping troops.

Installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission has come under increased scrutiny over the past year after six peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Four U.S. soldiers were among them.

The United States believes that the structure of the more than three-decade old operation may be outdated.

“I don't think anyone's talking about a (complete) withdrawal,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declining to enter into specifics about any potential troop reduction.

“I think we're just going to look at the number of people we have there and see if there are functions that can be automated or done through remote monitoring.”

Changing the MFO mission could be a sensitive proposition to both Israel and Egypt.

Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, brings it $1.3 billion in annual U.S. defense aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarization of their sovereign Sinai territory.

For the Israelis, the MFO offers strategic reassurance, especially following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's toppling two years ago of an elected Islamist regime hostile to the Jewish-majority state next door.

Among the options being considered are use of remote sensors or surveillance to do some of the work in the Sinai, the peninsula that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

“What we are looking at is, this has been in existence for 30 years and the mission has remained largely unchanged,” Davis said.

“What we want to be able to do is look at the core things that that mission provides and see how we can leverage modern technologies, remote surveillance capabilities, etc., to be able to carry out that mission.”

Egyptian security efforts in the Sinai have suffered major setbacks, including the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner and Friday's bombing of two armored personnel carriers that killed seven.

Islamic State insurgents claimed responsibility for both incidents.

Israel vs. ISIS


The tragic attacks, first in Sinai, then in Beirut, and now in Paris, should remind us that the fight against ISIS — the fight against Islamic terror — belongs to no one country and no one religion. We are all threatened, we must all fight, and with every means possible.

Then why is it, I wonder, that Europe is fighting terror with one hand tied behind its back?

The havoc the terrorists wreaked upon Paris last week may be new to the West, but it’s old news to Israel. Gunmen shooting unarmed innocents? Ma’alot, 1974. Bombs made of propane tanks and nails? Afula, 1994. Suicide bombers in restaurants? Sbarro pizzeria, Jerusalem, 2001.  

One year ago this week, the Israel Defense Forces announced that undercover agents from its Duvdevan unit uncovered a 30-person Hamas terror network just as it was preparing to carry out a simultaneous attack on numerous soft targets around Jerusalem, including the city’s Teddy soccer stadium.   

Israel has developed a unique expertise in thwarting attacks before they happen. When it comes to fighting Islamic terror, other countries are, to borrow an unfortunate phrase from President Barack Obama, the JV team. Israel is varsity.

So in the international effort to disrupt and dismantle ISIS, why isn’t Israel playing front and center?

To defeat ISIS and the ideology that spawns it will take more than military might. But a combination of intelligence and military power is certainly part of the solution, and Israel could and should be one of the West’s most effective assets.

It’s a lot easier to hit ISIS in the Sinai by taking off from southern Israel, for example, than from Germany or Turkey. The Golan Heights looks down on ISIS positions in what was once Syria. Beyond geography, Israel has decades of experience in human and signal intelligence and counter-terrorism. It also has very cool toys, like the Super Heron drone. In July, an Israeli drone killed two Hezbollah operatives and three members of a pro-Assad militia driving on a road in Syria. It would certainly give ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pause to know he was on an Israeli target list.

In short, those who want to defeat ISIS have a potential front-line ally with equipment, expertise and experience.   

Right now, Israel’s role remains behind the scenes. Following the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left hinting that Israel has been useful in helping France, but clearly its ability to join a gathering international coalition is limited.

The list of countries that wants ISIS dead and gone grows longer by the week: France, Turkey, the NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia, Egypt.  Jordan sent fighter planes to carry out bombing raids against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa long before France did.

The problem is that many of these countries find it more useful to cooperate  in the shadows with Israel — a greater demon than ISIS, evidently, in the eyes of their people. The fact that it is Israeli radar that collected telltale signals that a bomb took down the Russian airliner over Sinai has complicated the investigation with the Egyptian government, according to CNN.   

This is frustrating to the governments themselves, which know how effective and useful Israel can be.

Alon Ben-David, the defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, told me the clandestine — but well-known — cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States in fighting ISIS and al-Qaida is a “mistress-like relationship”— it takes place only behind closed doors.

That’s also true, by the way, in areas of agriculture, water and industry. Israeli consultants on non-Israeli passports are a meaningful part of Gulf Arab economies — but all the light they bring remains in the shadows.

As heart-wrenching as ISIS’ attacks have been in Sinai, Beirut and Paris, they may also present an opportunity to shake up the Middle East status quo and bring Israel in from the cold. The old fight was Jew versus Muslim. The new and far more relevant fight is moderates versus extremists, modernity versus medievalism. On that front, Israel is the natural ally of many Arab states (whose degree of moderateness is, of course, relative).

The fight against ISIS, in other words, could become a historic milestone in Israel’s regional legitimacy.

We’ll see if Arab leaders have the good sense to go in this direction. Israeli military and diplomatic experts tell me that what would help, enormously, is for Israel itself to make a public and concerted effort to move toward a rapprochement with its Palestinian neighbors.

“The Gulf leaders are begging for some sort of progress,” a senior Israeli military official told me in early November, before the Paris attacks increased the urgency. “Not even a deal, just movement toward a deal.”

An Israeli-Palestinian thaw would help bring the Israel-Arab cooperation out into the open and begin Israel’s integration in the region and the world.  And it would help knock ISIS back on its heels. For decades, Israel fought alone, or almost alone. How different would the world look if that were to change?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

‘Sky Defender’ protects flights to Eilat against missiles from Sinai


Arkia Israel and Israir Airlines, which share the route to Israel’s southern tourism Mecca Eilt, have received a protective system against ground-to-Air missiles. The upgrade was installed for fear of terrorist organizations operating in the Sinai who might try to harm Israeli passenger jets flying near the border with Egypt, Yediot Ahronot reported Monday.

The order to install the systems on planes was issued two weeks ago by the security apparatus, in the days when ISIS-affiliated Islamists attacked Egyptian army and police bases in the Sinai. In recent days, Israelis flying to Eilat have noticed a prominent addition to the belly of the Israeli passenger aircraft.

The anti-missile defense system, known as Magen Rakia (Heb: Sky Defender), is an active protection system for civil aircraft against missile attacks, developed by El-Op (a subsidiary of Elbit Systems). The Magen Rakia system incorporates advanced fiber-laser with thermal imaging technology manufactured by Elbit, to produce a strong signal that jams a number of wave lengths, causing infrared-guided shoulder-fired homing missiles to stray from their path and lose their target.

The system is mounted inside a pod, on the belly of the aircraft. It has four sensors that allow detection, identification, tracking and ultimately disrupting the orbit of each rocket fired towards the airplane.

When a missile is launched at the plane, it is perceived and recognized by the infrared sensors. The sensors follow the missile until it reaches the appropriate distance, then directs at it a laser beam that “blinds” the missile’s guidance system “eye,” causing the missile to veer off course and miss the plane.

Last February, Elbit and the Ministry of Transportation conducted a final, successful test of the system, which has proven its effectiveness against a variety of threats. This was followed by a process of fitting Israeli passenger planes to carry the system.

Israel has committed $76 million to the development and procurement of the new system.

In recent days, several Arkia and Israir Boeing 757 and Airbus A320 planes began to carry the system, and additional installations are in the works.

Israel says Islamic State’s Sinai assault aimed to help Hamas get arms


Israel accused Hamas on Tuesday of supporting last week's assaults by Islamic State affiliates on Egyptian forces in the Sinai in hope of freeing up arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.

The remarks followed Israeli allegations that Hamas members provided training and medical treatment for the Sinai insurgents – charges dismissed by the Palestinian Islamist group as a bid to further fray its troubled ties with Cairo.

Egypt said more than 100 insurgents and 17 of its soldiers were killed in Wednesday's simultaneous assaults, carried out against military checkpoints around the North Sinai towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. Islamic State's Egypt affiliate, Sinai Province, took credit for the attacks.

Rafah straddles the border between Egypt and Gaza and had long seen smuggling to the Hamas-controlled enclave. But Cairo has been cracking down on such activity and deems Hamas a threat to Egyptian interests.

An Israeli intelligence colonel responsible for monitoring the borders with Egypt and Gaza said on Tuesday that Hamas, short of weaponry after its war against Israel last year, supported the Sinai assaults with the “objective of opening up a conduit” for renewed smuggling.

“Why was it is so very important for them (Hamas) to develop the connection with Sinai Province? Because they need the raw materials that would enable the military build-up in Gaza,” the colonel said in remarks aired by Israel Radio.

“To carry out high-quality smuggling required a special operation,” added the colonel, whose name was not published.

Hamas said Israel was conducting “a systematic incitement campaign”.

“The Egyptian side understands that Hamas had no connection to what happened in Sinai and also realizes the efforts Hamas is making to keep Gaza away from what happens there,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Palestinian movement.

Egyptian officials were not immediately available to respond to the Israeli colonel's allegations.

On Friday, Egyptian military sources said there was evidence that individuals from Hamas had participated in the Sinai battles but not of any wider organizational links.

Though they share hostility to Israel, Hamas and Islamic State have been at odds within Gaza. The insurgents threatened last week to extend their self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq to Gaza by toppling Hamas, which they described as insufficiently stringent about religious rule.

That strife ends at the Sinai border, Israel argues.

“Hamas is fighting ISIS (Islamic State) in the Strip, but on the other side there is cooperation between Hamas elements from Gaza and ISIS in Sinai,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement on Tuesday.

U.S. designates Sinai group that attacked Israel as terrorist


The Obama administration designated a Sinai-based group as terrorist in part because of its attacks on Israel. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) shares an ideology with al-Qaeda but is not a formal affiliate, the U.S. State Department said in a statement April 9.

The group “was responsible for a July 2012 attack against a Sinai pipeline exporting gas to Israel,” the statement said. “In August 2012, ABM claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the southern Israeli city of Eilat, and in September 2012, ABM militants attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing one soldier and injuring another.”

The statement also noted the group’s deadly attacks on Egyptian officials and on tourists.

The Foreign Terrorist Organization designation, which is made by the departments of State, Treasury and Justice, criminalizes any support for the named groups.

Yom Kippur War: 40 years later


A week before Yom Kippur 1973, I moved from Hazerim air force base to Jerusalem to study history at Hebrew University. Yet it was life, not university, which actually taught me a history lesson.

Early in the morning of Yom Kippur, I woke up amid the half-opened boxes to the screaming buzz of a low-flying jet fighter. Aircraft flying on Yom Kippur? I knew immediately what it meant: The air force was sending a signal to all aircrews scattered across the country to return to their bases immediately. I kissed my wife and my 9-month-old daughter goodbye, promising to return that evening. When I did return, a month later, 2,700 Israeli soldiers were dead and Israel was never the same again.

It is difficult to explain today how complacent and arrogant we were in the years preceding the Yom Kippur War. With the smashing victory of the Six-Day War and the charismatic general Moshe Dayan promising us infallibility, we were blind to the alarm signals. In 1971, we dismissed a settlement with Egypt brokered by then-Secretary of State William Rogers, and we ridiculed the threats of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that if Israel didn’t return Sinai through negotiations, it would be returned by force. 

It is just as difficult today to describe our feelings at that time, when everything around us seemed to be falling apart. Everything we believed was solid suddenly seemed to be shaky; bad news followed more bad news; and Dayan, the war hero, crumbled and started mumbling doomsday prophecies of “the fall of the Third Temple.”

Then the true faces of the Israelis started to emerge. On the way down to Sinai, we had to fly a brigade of paratroopers — old reserve soldiers, long retired, who had liberated Jerusalem in 1967 and who had suddenly shown up, uninvited. Some came straight from their synagogues. “The aircraft is full,” I yelled at them, trying to close the door. They begged me with tears in their eyes to let them join their comrades. I did.

The fact that in just a few days we kicked the invading Syrians from the Golan Heights and then went on to threaten Damascus, and that the war was ended on kilometer 103 — from Cairo, mind you, not from Tel Aviv — is a tribute to the real heroes of the war: the field commanders and the soldiers, who, with their sacrifices, made up for the blindness of their political leaders and achieved an awesome victory.

Yet have we learned anything from that experience? I’m not sure. Indeed, my generation, the people who were bruised in that war, developed a healthy suspicion regarding the people at the top who pretend to know everything. Younger people, however, whose world has not been shattered yet, like ours was in 1973, tend to think we are omnipotent. I hope history won’t call upon us again to repent with the bravery of our fighting men for the shortsightedness of our leaders. 


Uri Dromi blogs at

Israel, Egypt cooperate


The story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Did an Israeli drone cross into Egyptian airspace over the weekend and fire a rocket at gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula who were about to launch a strike on Israel? Probably. Will any Israeli or Egyptian official admit it, even off the record? Probably not.

The official story coming out of Egypt is that it was the Egyptian military that attacked Jihadists in Sinai, killing five. The Egyptian army, which is presently controlling Egypt after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was forced from office, is wary of being seen as too close to Israel and the United States.

Asked whether Israel was behind the attack, Egyptian military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali declined to comment directly.

“There is an obligation between the two countries to coordinate attacks and inform each other of activities they conduct in Sinai due to the peace accords,” Ali said, referring to the historic treaty of 1979. 

An Israeli military spokesman sounded similarly opaque.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the Egyptian military maintain ongoing security coordination in order to contend with mutual threats,” Capt. Eytan Buchmann said.

Egyptian military analysts said it was likely that Israel was behind the strike.

“There is a lot of confusion about who attacked the terrorists. The Israelis say they did it and the Egyptians say they did it,” retired Egyptian Gen. Fathi Ali said. “I believe the Israelis did it but with Egyptian coordination. You need people on the ground to call in the coordinates of locations where terrorists are.”

There is widespread security coordination between Israel and Egypt that is increasingly important to their mutual interests.

“This cooperation is vital to both sides,” Eitan Shamir, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University said. “Both Israel and Egypt are concerned about the situation in the Sinai [peninsula] and neither country wants instability. They both have an interest in having quiet along their border.”

In the past few days, Egypt has embarked on a campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai. Egyptian soldiers have destroyed hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons between Egypt and Gaza, and is launching attacks similar to the drone strike over the weekend that was originally attributed to Israel and is now being credited to an Egyptian military helicopter.

In the past year, Israeli officials have grown increasingly worried about the growth of jihadist elements in Sinai, once a popular tourist destination for Israelis. Last week, Israel even closed down its airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat for two hours, after a warning from Egypt that a rocket attack from Sinai was imminent. 

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the security ties between the two countries were public and close. The Egyptian intelligence chief visited Israel often and helped mediate cease-fires between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which took over Gaza in 2007.

After the fall of Mubarak and the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Israeli officials were concerned that the Egyptian military might back away from its relationship with Israeli security forces. Morsi had close ties with Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, after Morsi’s forced removal, the Egyptian army is playing an even more important role in the Arab world’s largest country with 85 million people. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations that maintain peace treaties with Israel.

“There is a lot of security cooperation, and it’s very important,” an Israeli diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Egypt is the biggest and most important Arab country. When Egypt sneezes, the Arab world gets a cold. What happens there impacts everywhere.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if radical groups in Sinai come under enough pressure from Egypt, they could try to attack Israel to divert attention and garner support from other terrorist groups. As the Egyptian crackdown in the Sinai continues, Israeli officials say they expect more attempted attacks, and say that Israeli-Egyptian security coordination is even more important than it has been in the past.

Israel shuts airport at Egypt border, citing security


Israel took the rare step of shutting its southernmost Eilat airport near Egypt's Sinai peninsula for two hours on Thursday citing security concerns, military officials said.

A military spokeswoman said the airfield in the Red Sea city was shut “due to security assessments”. Two hours later a military official and Israel Radio said it had been reopened.

The reports said Israel's military chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz had made the decision after an assessment, but gave no further details.

The airport in the city wedged between Jordan and Egypt, brings tourists to Israel's Eilat resort and the closure followed heightened concerns about Islamist militant activity in the neighboring Sinai.

Air traffic often has been disrupted at Eilat by desert winds but the air strip has seldom been shut altogether.

Israel said last month that it had boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border to counter possible attacks from militants deeply opposed to the Jewish state.

A rocket fired from Sinai landed in Israel in July and its remnants were found in hills north of Eilat, which abuts Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.

Violence in the Sinai has surged since the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3, with almost daily assaults against Egyptian forces reported in the desert expanse.

Egypt's army said on Wednesday it had killed 60 militants in Sinai in the month since Mursi's ouster, and that an additional 64 militants were injured in the Sinai campaign between July 5 and August 4.

The militants have killed around 40 people including Egyptian security personnel in this period, Egyptian medical officials said.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Omar Fahmy, Maggie Fick, Shadia Nasralla in Cairo; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Michael Roddy

Israel boosts rocket defenses on Egypt border


Israel has boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border with Egypt to counter possible attacks from Islamist militants fighting security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.

Violence in Sinai has surged since the army ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, with militants killing at least 20 people in almost daily assaults in the area.

“We hear reports every day of attacks there and our concern is that the guns will be turned on us,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We have indeed strengthened our deployment along the border.”

He was speaking on a visit to an “Iron Dome” missile Defense system that was deployed last week in the southern town Eilat.

He said that since Morsi's overthrow, Egypt had increased its efforts to curb militants who have exploited a security vacuum in the Sinai since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“We can see much more effective activity of the Egyptian army and security forces there in the past few months and mainly in the past few weeks after the change in government,” Yaalon said.

With Egyptian security forces pressing the militants, Israel was expecting trouble, one Israeli official said.

“The assessment in recent days is that given the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai, the terrorist elements there will try to demonstrate their survivability and defiance by shelling us,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

A rocket fired from Sinai landed in Israel earlier this month and its remnants were found in hills north of Eilat, a Red Sea resort that abuts Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egyptian Islamists attack on Gaza border


Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

The attacks came as Egypt was bracing for mass protests Friday by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who was deposed Wednesday by the army after a year in power. Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, called the action a coup.

Egyptian Army and Islamists in deadly clashes


Egyptian soldiers killed at least three supporters of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo hours after Islamists attacked sites in the Sinai.

The Morsi supporters were shot while trying to breach the Cairo barracks where the deposed Egyptian president is being held by the army.

Supporters in cities across Egypt on Friday protested Wednesday’s coup, which removed Morsi from power a little more than a year after his election as president.

Earlier in the day, Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

Long-range rockets strike Eilat


Two long-range rockets fired from the Sinai Desert struck the Israeli resort city of Eilat.

The rockets launched Wednesday morning fell in open areas in the southernmost Israeli city, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli forces found the remnants of the two rockets. One landed in a construction site in south Eilat.

A Sinai-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for the attack. Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin said in a statement on its website that the rockets were retaliating for the Israeli army's actions against protesters demonstrating over the death of a Palestinian prisoner, Haaretz reported.

Local residents and tourists had been ushered into bomb shelters following a warning siren before the two explosions.

An Iron Dome missile defense system battery deployed in the Eilat area tracked the rockets but did not operate to shoot them down, according to reports.

Following the attack, the Eilat airport was closed for several hours.

Jordan denied reports that at least two other rockets fired from the Sinai hit Aqaba.

A rocket last landed in Eilat in April 2012.

Egypt seizes two tons of explosives bound for Sinai


Egypt seized two tons of explosives hidden in a truck carrying a shipment of fruits and vegetables bound for Sinai on Friday, security sources said.

The country's security forces are trying to reassert control over the Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip and has descended into lawlessness since the revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

“We found the amount in a shipment, concealed under some fruits and vegetables… We found the explosives packed inside 100 plastic bags,” a security source said.

In January, Egypt seized six anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets in the Sinai peninsula that smugglers may have intended to send to the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.

The confiscated explosives were of a type used for demolishing stones in quarries.

When interrogated, the truck driver said he was unaware he was transporting explosives and that a businessman had asked him to take the goods to Sinai where it would be collected.

Reporting Yousri Mohamed; Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Michael Roddy

Israeli intel: Independent jihadist network perpetrating Sinai attacks


Terror attacks in the Sinai emanated from an independent jihadist network there, Israeli intelligence reportedly believes.

Many members of the Sinai network are Egyptians who do not live in the Sinai, according to the Haaretz newspaper, which cited Israeli intelligence.

Two of the three terrorists involved in last month's cross-border attack that killed an Israeli soldier were well-off husbands and fathers who did not outwardly identify with religious extremism, Egyptian newspapers reported, according to Haaretz.

Other attacks on the Sinai border, including the killing of eight Israelis in August 2011 and the 14 attacks on a gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel, also are believed to have emanated from the same jihadist network and are not an extension of Gaza terrorism.

Haaretz reported that the network recruits from throughout the Arab world.

Egypt sentences 14 to death for Sinai attacks


An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 14 Islamists to death for attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, showing Egypt's determination to put down militancy in a region critical to relations with neighbouring Israel.

The Jewish state has voiced concern about security in Sinai, where at least four cross-border attacks have taken place since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.

The Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has made the issue a priority since he was elected in June.

Sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed in August, and hundreds of police and troops with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters have been sent to raid militant hideouts and seize weapons in an operation coordinated with Israel.

The court in Ismailia sentenced 14 members of the Tawheed wal Jihad group to hang for killing three police officers, an army officer and a civilian in attacks on a police station and a bank in the town of Arish in June and July last year.

Eight were tried in absentia, court sources said. Four other militants were sentenced to life imprisonment.

“This court decision is a milestone. It gives a strong message to the militant groups that the state, President Mohamed Morsi's government, will not tolerate attacks on the Egyptian armed forces and police,” said Nageh Ibrahim, an expert on Islamists who is himself a former militant.

The verdicts prompted cries from the accused.

“Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one.

Others cried “God is Greatest” as they listened to the judge from inside their metal cage in court. The men all had beards and traditional white robes and some held Korans.

The prosecutor said that Tawheed wal Jihad (“Monotheism and Holy War”) propagated a hardline Islamist view that allowed adherents to declare the head of state an infidel and to wage war on the government.

The same group was accused of carrying out a series of bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005 against tourist resorts in South Sinai, in which 34 people died.

Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt's highest Islamic legal official, sanctioned the death penalty before it was pronounced.

“The accused wanted to spread corruption in the earth,” he said. “They went out armed with deadly weapons, machine guns and explosives to target security forces … all in the name of Islam. They therefore deserve the death sentence.”

Ibrahim, who was jailed during the 1990s but later became one of the leading Islamists to call for an end to violence against the state, said the verdicts would deter other militants from attacking Israel.

“Morsi's government is adamant about stemming any attacks across the border because this will give Israel an incentive to reoccupy Sinai. Now is the time for development, not war,” Ibrahim said.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated a demilitarised buffer zone.

Additional reporting and writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Egypt says it has identified suspects in Sinai killings


Egypt has identified seven suspects, including one Egyptian, in the killing of 16 border guards last month that triggered the biggest security sweep along its frontier with Israel in decades, the interior minister said.

The attack on August 5, the worst since Egypt's 1973 war with its Jewish neighbor, underlined how lax policing in the region has emboldened Islamist militants to step up attacks on Egyptian security forces and the Israeli border.

Lawlessness in Sinai deepened after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year and his successor as president, Mohamed Mursi, has vowed to restore order.

“The security apparatus succeeded in identifying the perpetrators of the incident that killed Egyptian soldiers in Rafah,” Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal El-Din told state-owned al-Akhbar.

He told the daily newspaper that the Egyptian suspect belonged to a dormant local jihadi cell but did not mention the nationalities of the other suspects or say if any of the seven had been detained.

Gamal said security forces were still trying to root out members of “disparate” militant groups, some of whom espoused the “takfiri” doctrine, which sees modern society as godless and therefore to be avoided, or attacked.

A complex relationship between the hardline Islamist groups, security forces and local Bedouin tribes hostile to the Cairo government complicates efforts to pacify the region.

It also makes it harder to verify reports of the security mission in the isolated region and the local response.

Joint army-police raids on suspected militant hideouts began a few days after the attack, employing attack helicopters, armored vehicles and hundreds of troops.

The army says 11 militants have been killed and 23 arrested, 11 vehicles impounded and weapons seized including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition.

The crackdown has the cautious approval of Israel which is alarmed by the increasing audacity of the Sinai militants. Analysts say some of them may have links to al Qaeda.

Reporting By Tamim Elyan, editing by Tim Pearce

Egypt replaces tanks with armored vehicles in Sinai


Egypt's military is deploying light armored vehicles in Sinai to replace some heavy tanks whose presence at the border area had raised concerns in Israel, security sources said on Tuesday.A source said last week the army had begun withdrawing some of the tanks, after they had been deployed as part of an operation against militants who attacked and killed 16 border guards on August 5.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold, which has alarmed Israel.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters were sent to the area in a joint operation with police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, rife in the area.

But Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there have been restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty, the first such treaty reached between Israel and an Arab state.

“Twenty tanks have been withdrawn from the central sector of Sinai toward Suez,” a security source said, adding that about 20 armored vehicles have reached Al-Arish city, the administrative centre of North Sinai.

The sources did not give a clear answer to whether the withdrawal of tanks was taken in response to Israel's concerns or say how many tanks were still in Sinai.

The army said last week it would broaden its campaign in Sinai, involving a redeployment of forces but did not specify which areas they would redeploy to.

“The operation is entering a new phase that requires different equipment capable of facing and handling the situation in Sinai,” military official told Reuters on Tuesday.

Another security source said the tanks were removed to be replaced with more “useful equipment”.

Analysts said there was no doubt that the tanks were taken out to assuage Israeli concerns. “Egypt's decision to remove tanks was taken to calm Israel after it voiced concerns about the presence of tanks near its borders,” Safwat al Zayaat, a retired army general and military expert said.

“As if the tanks were, as Egypt is saying now, not useful then why did it send them there in the first place?” he said.

A security source said security forces defused a land mine and a bomb on Tuesday planted by militants east of Al-Arish. It was the fourth such incident since last week.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards on August 5. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the border attack – warned the Egyptian army that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad; Writing by Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alison Williams

Egypt withdraws tanks from Sinai


Egypt has withdrawn some 20 tanks from Sinai in response to Israel's security concerns, according to an unnamed Egyptian official.

The official spoke Monday to The Associated Press about the withdrawal, which comes a month after Egyptian troops, including tanks and other hardware, entered the Sinai in order to combat terrorism emanating from the peninsula and directed at both Egypt and Israel.

The 1979 Camp David peace accords stipulate that Sinai is to remain demilitarized, although in recent years Israel has agreed to exceptions in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks and stop cross-border infiltrations.

Meanwhile, it was reported Sunday in the Egyptian and Israeli media that a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel was deployed to Jerusalem and that his appointment will be confirmed this week.

Atef Salem, who previously served as Egypt's consul general in Eilat, is scheduled to present his credentials to Israeli President Shimon Peres next month.

The previous ambassador was recalled in August 2011 after three Egyptian security officers were killed by Israeli troops as they pursued terrorists in the Sinai.

Egypt broadens Sinai campaign against militants


Egypt’s military said on Wednesday it would broaden its offensive against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has raised concerns in Israel about the movement of heavy armor into the area near its border.

After militants attacked and killed 16 border guards on Aug. 5, Egypt launched an operation using the army and police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, that are rife in the area.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold. This has alarmed Israel.

Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there are restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty.

Egypt has sent hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters into the North Sinai region since the start of military operations there on Aug.8.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told Reuters on Monday in his first interview with international media that Egypt was committed to all treaties and, without naming Israel, said no other states should worry about its actions in Sinai.

“As of the morning of Aug. 29, in continuation of the military operation, there will be a redeployment of forces in various locations in Sinai to complete the hunt for terrorist elements,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A military source told Reuters this would involve spreading security forces over a wider area to root out militants.

The campaign is led by the defense minister and head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed by Morsi in a shake-up of the military top brass on Aug. 12. The Islamist president has promised to restore order.

Sisi briefed Morsi on the Sinai operation on Monday.

The ministry statement on its website said 11 militants had been killed and 23 arrested in the campaign. It said 11 vehicles had been seized, along with ammunition, including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition, but did not give details.

WEAPONS SMUGGLING

The 1979 peace treaty limits the military presence in the desert peninsula though in recent years Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to deploy more forces there to stem weapons smuggling by Palestinian gunmen and crime.

An Egyptian security source said on Wednesday tanks were being withdrawn from the border area in a move that could calm Israel’s concerns. Three other security sources confirmed this and said the tanks were being moved to another part of Sinai, without giving further details.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the attack – warned the Egyptian army last week that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Leaders of the Cairo-based Jihad Group, which fought against Mubarak but has since renounced violence, met earlier in the week in Sinai with members of the Salafi Jihadi Group in an attempt to defuse tensions.

“We went to prevent a new rivalry with the state,” said Magdy Salem, a member of the Cairo group. He said the visit was approved by Morsi.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Mubarak’s military-backed government worked closely with Israel to keep the region under control. Diplomats say security contacts continued after Mubarak’s fall. But Egyptian security sources said Israel should not expect day-to-day reports.

Clinton urges Egypt, Israel to talk about Sinai


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt’s foreign minister to keep lines of communication open with Israel amid tensions over an Egyptian push against militants in the neighboring Sinai desert, the State Department said on Thursday.

Clinton spoke with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr on Wednesday and stressed the importance of acting transparently as Cairo deploys aircraft and tanks in Sinai, for the first time since a 1973 war with Israel, to pursue Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 border guards in an August 5 attack.

“This call was in keeping with a series of contacts we’ve had in recent days with both Egyptians and Israelis encouraging both sides to keep the lines of communication open,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Israeli officials have expressed concern over the Egyptian deployment, saying the vehicles’ entry into the Sinai was not coordinated and was in violation of a 1979 peace treaty.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not lodged a formal protest, preferring to try and resolve the issue in quiet contacts including U.S. mediation to avoid worsening ties with Cairo, already strained since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolt last year.

Nuland said the Sinai security situation should be addressed “in a way that first and foremost strengthens Egypt’s security but also has a positive impact on the security of neighbors and the region as a whole.”

Nuland declined to say whether the United States believed Egypt had been insufficiently transparent or failed to keep Israel informed.

“Our view is that effective mechanisms do exist and that they just need to continue to be used,” she said.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated as a demilitarized buffer zone.

But Israeli media have speculated that coordination with Egypt may suffer after a shakeup this month of Egypt’s military, including Islamist President Mohammed Mursi’s dismissals of officials Israel had long been in contact with.

Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Vicki Allen

Egypt’s deployment of armor in Sinai worries Israel


Israel is concerned about the deployment of Egyptian armor in a push against militants in the neighboring Sinai desert, saying the vehicles’ entry wasn’t coordinated and is in violation of a 1979 peace treaty, an Israeli official said on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not lodged any formal protest preferring to try and resolve the issue in quiet contacts including U.S. mediation, to avoid worsening ties with Cairo already strained since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolt last year.

Egyptian security sources said this week they were preparing to deploy aircraft and tanks in Sinai for the first time since a 1973 war with Israel, in a crackdown on Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 border guards in an August5 attack.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai.

The Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Egypt had already sent “some” armored vehicles into the desert peninsula and that “Israel is bothered by the entry of armored vehicles in Sinai without coordination.”

Egyptian television footage showed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Sinai addressing troops with tanks and heavy equipment behind them. Other images from his visit broadcast by Egypt’s private ON TV showed a row of six tanks and five armored personnel carriers.

While Israel does not view the armor as a threat, the official said, it wants to make sure it has a say over what weaponry is deployed in the Sinai, which the peace treaty intended as a demilitarized buffer zone.

“There is no precedent for armored vehicles being deployed in Sinai and certainly not without any coordination,” he said.

Israel had urged Egypt to crack down on the militants, and its security cabinet had approved an Egyptian request to use attack helicopters in Sinai two weeks ago, after the Islamist gunmen who attacked Egypt’s security personnel also penetrated Israel’s border where they were killed.

But local media say Israel was worried coordination with Egypt may suffer after a shakeup this month of Egypt’s military, including Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s dismissals of officials Israel had long been in contact with.

In Cairo, Yasser Ali, a spokesman for Morsi, told Reuters security measures in Sinai were “crucial” to Egypt’s security.

An Egyptian military source told Reuters the Sinai security sweep was in keeping with agreements reached with Israel a year ago after eight Israelis died in a cross-border attack.

“We don’t need to issue a daily report to Israel on the operation as it is a matter of sovereignty and national security,” the source went on to say.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Yasmine Saleh and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Egypt to move tanks into Sinai for first time since 1973


Egypt reportedly is planning to introduce tanks in the Sinai for the first time since the 1973 war with Israel.

The plans, part of the country’s attempts to shut down terrorists in the area, are being finalized by Egypt’s newly appointed defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Reuters reported.

The movement of military hardware into the Sinai comes after a deadly attack earlier this month on Egyptian border guards that left 16 dead. Part of the assault included an attempt to breach the border with Israel. Israel reportedly had warned Egypt about the attack before it happened.

Following the attack, Israel agreed to the movement of additional Egyptian troops into the region to control the terrorists.

Under the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Israel agreed to withdraw its troops and citizens from the Sinai and return it to Egypt in return for normalized relations and a restriction on the number of Egyptian troops allowed to enter the Sinai, particularly near the border with Israel.

Israel has called on Egypt to control the terrorists in the Sinai.

Israeli officials have not commented to local media on the reported plans, but have said that Israeli and Egyptian security officials are in contact with each other.

Mimicking Al-Qaida, militant threat grows in Sinai


They came in Toyota pick-up trucks, dozens of heavily armed masked men, firing machineguns and waving the black flag of Al-Qaida as terrified residents and police huddled indoors, and then disappeared again, melting away into the mountains and remote villages of Egypt’s Sinai desert.

The raid on the town of al-Arish in July 2011 was the first warning Egypt had of the strength of the jihadis in North Sinai. It was a warning largely unheeded until suspected Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards this month and drove a stolen armored car across the Israeli border before it was destroyed by Israeli forces.

Egypt is now pouring in troops to try to restore stability, and the sophistication of the border attack has finally set alarm bells ringing about the militant threat in the Sinai.

“Sinai is ideal and fertile ground for Al-Qaida,” said Khalil al-Anani, a Middle East specialist at Durham University in England. “It could become a new front for Al-Qaida in the Arab world.”

Diplomats and analysts say there is no evidence as yet of formal links between Al-Qaida and the Sinai militants – made up of Bedouin aggrieved at their treatment by Cairo, Egyptians who escaped prisons during last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and Palestinians from neighboring Gaza.

They blend a toxic mix of smuggling, gun-running and human trafficking with the “takfiri” ideology of Al-Qaida – which declares all Muslims who do not follow their purist, Salafist interpretation of Islam as “kafirs” – infidels. Crime and religion are soldered by ferocious opposition to Israel.

“The Sinai has become a base for all kinds of extremist groups,” Yitzhak Levanon, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, told Reuters. “Their overarching objective is to hurt us, to expel us, to set up a caliphate and shock the Middle East.”

And they pose a serious threat not just to Israel, but, perhaps more importantly, to Egypt.

Any attack on Israel that provoked Israeli retaliation could upset a peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979 and put huge pressure on new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. Or militants could turn west to attack the Suez Canal.

“It is much easier for these fundamentalist Bedouin groups inspired by extreme Salafi/Qaeda-like doctrine to attack ships in the Suez Canal than to mount an operation on the Israeli border,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Sinai region, handed over to Egypt by Israel under the terms of their U.S.-brokered peace accord, has long been neglected by Cairo, leaving room for crime to flourish.

But residents in al-Arish, the administrative centre of North Sinai on the Mediterranean coast, said they realized the threat had become much more serious when their town was raided on July 29 last year.

‪‪“They looked like trained groups, not the normal thugs we see,” said one shopkeeper, who like other residents was afraid to be named for fear of retribution.

Waving copies of the Koran and the flag of Al-Qaida – recognizable by the white Arabic lettering declaring faith in Islam superimposed on black to signify jihad – they spread out across the town and took up positions on rooftops.

At the police station nearby, terrified security forces barricaded themselves inside, while the gunmen shot at anyone who ventured outside. “They had all kinds of weapons, including rocket-propelled-grenades,” said another resident.

One had a Palestinian accent, said the shopkeeper, saying he heard him speaking over the phone saying that, “Our ammo is over and we don’t know where we are.”

Six died, including one of the gunmen, before Egyptian reinforcements arrived. “They ran away in all directions and nobody knows where they went,” said the shopkeeper.

PINNING HOPES ON MURSI

‪‪The newly launched army operation – billed as the biggest offensive in the region since the 1973 war with Israel – has yet to make much of an impact, and may make things worse if heavy-handed tactics drive more youth into the arms of the militants.

“Sinai needs a comprehensive strategy: social, economic and political,” said Durham University’s Anani.

Some residents even expressed cautious optimism that Mursi – who sacked army chief Hussein Tantawi on Sunday [ID:nL6E8JD1UW] – might improve the situation by reining in the military, whose past crackdowns have helped militants attract fresh recruits.

It was unclear whether Tantawi’s sidelining was linked to the attack on the border, although the deaths of the 16 Egyptian guards caused widespread public anger.

“There are some extremist ideas in Sinai but in my view, they don’t require all this military mobilization; there should have been a round of dialogue and tribal work,” said Abdel Rahman al-Shorbagy, a member of parliament for North Sinai representing the Freedom and Justice Party of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies. He estimated the numbers of militants in the sparsely populated desert region at between 1,000 and 1,500.

Mubarak built up tourist resorts in South Sinai that locals say mostly benefited Egyptians from the Nile Valley, and tried to impose an Egyptian administrative structure on North Sinai which undermined the authority of local Bedouin tribal elders.

Economic neglect forced people to seek work in the Gulf, and after Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007, many made money smuggling arms and other supplies through tunnels into the enclave ruled by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

The situation worsened during the uprising when security forces often abandoned their posts; the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi later that year brought an influx of weapons.

For Sinai youth, struggling to make a living, it was easy to be drawn into the simple message of Al-Qaida – that only if Muslims return to the purist lifestyle of the Prophet Mohammed can they challenge the economic and political clout of the West.

“What brought this ideology is the marginalization,” says one resident. “If someone can’t earn a living, he thinks the alternative is to be strict in worship.”

In every village, three or four youths have disappeared to join the militants, sometimes inspired by Al-Qaida propaganda over the Internet, and sometimes by preachers in local mosques.

They often sever contact with their relatives, not even returning during the month of Ramadan when families gather together for the “iftar” meal which ends the day-long fast.

“We always have iftar together but they never come,” said one villager who had two cousins who had joined the militants.

“TORA BORA OF SINAI”

With a lack of roads, development and state control, the mountains and villages of North Sinai’s vast desert hinterland are nearly impenetrable, making it easy for militants to hide.

In the Jabal al-Halah mountain in central Sinai, they are believed to be so well dug in that nobody can touch them.

“The Bedouins call this place the Tora Bora of Sinai. The Egyptian authorities are extremely reluctant to go there,” said Yaari, in a reference to the Afghan mountain hideout used by Al-Qaida after the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

He said, without explaining how he knew, that the men behind the attack on the border had spent some time encamped there.

North Sinai is in some ways similar to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Al-Qaida has dug deep roots. Both have been neglected by central government; both lie in the middle of wider political conflicts.

And the authority of tribal leaders in both has been diminished as money – from crime, Gulf remittances and state patronage – filtered into other hands – making it easier for militants to promote unity in Islam over tribal loyalty.

“We are witnessing today the rise of these new Bedouin fundamentalists,” said Yaari. “They are destroying the old tribal structures. They allow marriages between rival tribes and force women to wear the veil. This never happened before.”

A particular fear is that militant Salafists in Gaza and Sinai are joining forces, creating an environment ripe for Al-Qaida were it to seek a base for use against Israel or the more moderate political Islam of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Already, according to one Arab diplomat in Islamabad, Egyptian members of Al-Qaida have begun to move back from Pakistan to take advantage of political changes at home.

As yet, however, the Sinai militants appear to be mimicking Al-Qaida rather than trying to establish formal links with the group whose leader Ayman al-Zawahri – who took over after Osama bin Laden was killed last year – is himself Egyptian.

Diplomats and experts in Gaza say Salafist leaders there speak of admiration for Al-Qaida but deny factional ties.

“Al-Qaida is more interested in using Palestine as a tag for its global fight rather than have an actual base in Gaza or the West Bank,” said one diplomat. “They believe a Palestinian group would have a more nationalist outlook.”

Yaari said he believed the Bedouin jihadis were communicating with Al-Qaida in Yemen, and maybe also in north Africa. “But so far, although they are seeking recognition from Al-Qaida, they have not obtained it.”

He also dismissed suggestions that foreign fighters might have played a big role in the border attack. “There are some foreigners in the Sinai, but they are more like hitchhikers,” he said. “If it weren’t for the fact that so many are heading to Syria, we would see more in the Sinai.”

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Myra MacDonald in London and Michael Georgy in Islamabad; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Egypt’s Islamist president removes top generals


Egypt’s new Islamist president Mohamed Mursi dismissed Cairo’s two top generals on Sunday and cancelled a military order that curbed his powers, in a dramatic move that could free him of some of the restrictions of military rule.

It was not clear how far the measures were agreed with the dismissed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over when Hosni Mubarak was deposed – nor how far they would shift the power balance between the generals and Mursi’s long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.

A member of the military council told Reuters that Mursi, a moderate Islamist popularly elected in June but with constitutional powers sharply circumscribed in advance by the generals, had consulted Tantawi, 76, and General Sami Enan, 64, the military chief of staff, before ordering both men to retire.

However, coupled with what Mursi’s spokesman described as the cancellation of the constitutional declaration issued just before Mursi’s election, by which Tantawi and his colleagues curbed presidential powers, the surprise move seemed to indicate a substantial reordering of Egypt’s political forces as it waits for a new constitution after six decades of unbroken army rule.

“Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been transferred into retirement from today,” presidential spokesman said in a statement, appointing in his place as armed forces chief and defense minister General Abdellatif Sisi.

Enan was replaced General Sidki Sobhi. Both retirees were appointment as advisers to the president.

Enan, long seen as particularly close to the U.S. military which has been the main sponsor of Egypt’s armed forces, and Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years before helping ease him out in the face of street protests 18 months ago, were both appointed as advisers to Mursi.

The changes were effective immediately, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said.

General Mohamed el-Assar, who sits on the military council, told Reuters: “The decision was based on consultation with the field marshal, and the rest of the military council.”

Mursi, whose victory over a former general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about their alliances with Egypt, also appointed a judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as his vice president. Mekky is a brother of newly appointed Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, who had been a vocal critic of vote rigging under Mubarak.

Mursi, who has said he will stand by Cairo’s treaties with Israel and others, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai desert that brought trouble with Israel and the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip enclave this month.

The president, whose own Brotherhood movement renounced violence long ago, sacked Egypt’s intelligence chief last week after an attack in which Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards before trying to storm the Israeli border.

On Sunday, Egyptian troops killed five Islamist militants after storming their hideout near the isolated border with Israel, security sources and eyewitnesses said.

The troops found the militants in the settlement of al-Goura, about 15 km (10 miles) from the frontier, as they searched for jihadists who killed the 16 border guards a week ago.

The latest clash is part of a security sweep that began on Wednesday and is the biggest military operation in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel was followed by a 1979 peace treaty which opened the way for massive U.S. aid to Cairo. No one has claimed responsibility for killing the border guards.

Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad; Writing by Alastair Macdonald

Little sign of battle in Egypt’s Sinai region


Egypt poured troops into North Sinai on Thursday in an offensive meant to tackle militants in the Israeli border region, but residents were skeptical, saying they had seen no sign of anyone being killed in what they described as a “haphazard” operation.

The offensive is crucial to maintaining good relations with Israel, which fears Islamist militants based in the increasingly lawless desert region could link up with hardliners in neighboring Gaza to launch attacks on the Jewish state – potentially threatening a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Army commanders said as many as 20 “terrorists” had died in the offensive launched after suspected Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday and drove a stolen armored car into Israel which was then destroyed by Israeli forces.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached al-Arish, the main administrative center in North Sinai, security sources said on Thursday.

Armored vehicles, some equipped with machine guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the border settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid – which had been targeted by aircraft on Wednesday. The troops saluted passersby and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.

But residents interviewed later in Shaikh Zuwaid and surrounding villages said they had seen no sign of fighting.

In al Toumah, a village surrounded by olive fields, one witness said he saw troops firing in the air.

“We thought they were chasing someone, but their arms were directed up and we didn’t see who they were fighting with,” the witness, who declined to be named, said. “We couldn’t find any bodies or signs of battle after they left.”

In Shaikh Zuwaid, controlled by Bedouin tribal leaders since police deserted the area last year, life continued as normal, its markets bustling. Witnesses reported a military presence on the outskirts, but no fighting since Wednesday’s air strikes.

CHALLENGE FOR NEW PRESIDENT

Lawlessness has been growing in North Sinai, a region awash with guns and bristling with resentment against Cairo, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February last year.

On Thursday night, thousands of Egyptians protested in Cairo in an area where the funeral of the 16 soldiers killed in the border attack was held on Tuesday, demanding a tougher response to the killings.

“We want death to those who killed our martyrs in Rafah,” one banner said. The crowd closed down a main street, creating a huge traffic jam.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, elected in June, has vowed to restore stability in what the military has billed the biggest offensive in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

He has also brushed aside accusations that his background in the Muslim Brotherhood, and ideological affinity with the Islamist Hamas rulers in Gaza, might lead him to take a softer line on militants bent on the destruction of Israel.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

In the region itself, all signs pointed to problems ahead.

In al-Arish, gunmen fired shots towards a police station early on Thursday before running off. That followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

In al Toumah village, residents said troops had searched fields and raided one house, finding nothing.

Some residents complained the army’s limited actions so far – including Wednesday’s air strikes – seemed indiscriminate.

“We are not against attacking militants, but the pilots have to set their targets properly because we have been subjected to haphazard bombardment which led to the destruction of homes and cars,” said Mohamed Aqil in al-Goura village near Sheikh Zuwaid.

“They said they killed 20 militants, where are they? Show them to us,” said one resident at al Goura.

INTELLIGENCE CHIEF SACKED

Morsi on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and Egypt’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over the deaths of the 16 border guards, the deadliest assault on Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai since the 1973 war.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But with wide respect in Egypt for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts posted far from their families, public anger has focused on outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi.

Media outlets had quoted him as saying Egypt had been aware of a threat before the attack “but we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar”, he said.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Egypt began work to block the tunnels on Wednesday. It has also closed the Rafah border crossing, drawing an appeal from Ismail Nahiyeh, the head of the Hamas government, to reopen what he called “lifeline” for Gaza.

Residents in al-Arish welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, where many make a living smuggling goods and people through more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in al-Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer in Jerusalem; Writing by Myra MacDonald and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Michael Roddy

Egypt’s first Sinai air strike since ’73 war kills 20 terrorists


Egyptian troops have launched the largest operation in the Sinai desert peninsula since the 1972 war with Israel, killing at least 20 terrorists believed to be responsible for Sunday’s attack on an Egyptian border post that left 16 soldiers dead. Six of the attackers died when they drove across the Israeli border in a commandeered armored car and were hit by Israeli air missiles.

The attack has been seen as a reminder to both Israel and Egypt that despite cold relations bordering on frigid, the large Sinai Peninsula that borders both countries as well as Gaza, has the potential to destabilize the area. While no group has taken responsibility for the attack, both Egyptian and Israeli officials believe that Islamists are responsible.

Israeli officials say there has been intensive security cooperation with Egyptian officials since the incident began. The Israelis hope that the cooperation will serve to deepen ties with the new government headed by Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won Egypt’s presidential elections earlier this year after Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down following mass protests. The Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed during Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

“This attack on Egyptian soldiers has shaken some strong beliefs and tenets of many Egyptians including the new politicians,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line. “Most of them now understand that determined action needs to be taken in Sinai for the sake of Egyptian security and sovereignty, and not as a favor to Israel. Before our very eyes a new Egypt is emerging and this new Egypt needs to redefine its relations with Israel.”

At the same time, the new Egyptian government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic religious, political and social movement, does not want to be seen as cozying up to the Israelis.

“Israel and Egypt share the same interests and this highlighted it,” Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at Chatham House told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to (Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi and the army will require them to collaborate. They depend on each other.”

One of Morsi’s first acts in office was to assure the world that Egypt would abide by all of its international commitments including the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Public opinion in Egypt is squarely against the treaty, one of only two that Israel has with Arab countries. The other country is Jordan.

Last year, dozens of angry Egyptians attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and took six members of the embassy staff hostage. Egyptian commandos stormed the building after personal intervention by President Obama.

“The fundamental interest of Morsi and his movement is to freeze the close connections with Israel as much as possible,” Yoram Schweitzer, the director of the terror project at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv told The Media Line. “He can’t ignore the peace treaty but he wants a low key relationship. At the same time, he needs to cooperate with Israel to defeat the threat that is posed by Islamists against Israel and Egypt. The military and security establishments want close relations with Israel while the political echelon is doing it with a sour smile.”

It is also possible that the attack will exacerbate tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood between those who reject any cooperation with Israel and those who see it as a necessary evil.

Israel has long worried that the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty, has become a center for radical Islamist terrorists and smugglers. Weapons for Hamas in the Gaza Strip are routinely smuggled through the area. In the wake of the attack, Egypt stepped up its forces in Sinai but many in Israel expect more attacks.

“There’s still a threat to the borders and also to Israelis in the Sinai,” Colonel Avital Leibovich told The Media Line. “This is why we are deployed where we are and why we are building the border fence between Israel and Egypt.”

That fence, a steel barrier which will include cameras and radar, is due to be completed by the end of the year.

The attack is also raising questions about ties between Egypt and the Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza. Egyptian officials have said that at least some of the attackers may have come from Gaza. Egypt had promised to open its border with Gaza and allow for greater freedom of movement for the 1.6 million Palestinians who live there. But after the attack, the border remained closed until future notice.

Egypt also pushed Hamas to shut down the smuggling tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Hamas has allowed the hundreds of tunnels to function, creating an entire tunnel-based economy, bringing-in everything from weapons to car parts, charging taxes on goods coming through. Now, many tunnels have been shut down and prices in Gaza are starting to rise.

Israel dismisses accusation of involvement in Egypt attack


Israel on Monday dismissed a claim by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that it was in any way involved in a deadly attack on a police station in Sinai a day earlier in which 16 policemen were killed.

“Even the person who says this when he looks at himself in the mirror does not believe the nonsense he is uttering,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

The Muslim Brotherhood had said that the attack “can be attributed to Mossad”, referring to the Israeli intelligence agency.

Israel ‘can only rely on itself,’ Netanyahu says after Sinai attack


Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping the border between them safe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday during a tour of the site of Sunday’s deadly attack in which Sinai-based gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police officers and injured at least seven.

Quoting Egyptian media sources, Israel Radio has since reported that the death toll had reached 17.

In the Sunday incident, the jihadist terrorists took control over an Egyptian checkpointand and commandeered two Egyptian armored vehicles with which they charged toward the border crossing with Israel. The vehicles were destroyed and the terrorists killed as they attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border.

The incident began around 8 p.m., when Israeli soldiers heard shooting coming from the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land situated along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Five minutes later, Sinai terrorists took control of the Egyptian checkpoint, shot the soldiers and charged the commandeered vehicles toward the border, firing in all directions.

Around 8:10 p.m., one of the armored vehicles exploded at the border crossing, blowing a hole through the fence that allowed the other vehicle to cross into Israel. However, the second vehicle was quickly targeted from the air by waiting Israel Air Force aircraft, and was destroyed. Several terrorists were identified trying to flee from the burning vehicles, but they, too, were killed.

According to Israeli intelligence officials, the attack was orchestrated by a Salafi organization. Israeli intelligence services also had previous reports of an impending attack from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and were able to thwart the assault.

“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.

“I wish to express sorrow over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers,” Netanyahu said. “I think its clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a peaceful border between them. However, when it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, it seems time and again that Israel must and can only rely on itself.”

Egyptian army helicopters, with the help of army rangers, have since been attempting to apprehend suspects in the attack, an Egyptian security source reported Monday. An Egyptian source, speaking to Ahram Online, said that early on Monday army units surrounded the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border, to prevent suspects from escaping. A television journalist in the northern Sinai said the area had been sealed off by security forces, who blocked the road from the main town of Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian state television reported that the Rafah border crossing would be sealed indefinitely.

The attack was the deadliest such event that Egypt’s tense Sinai border region has seen in decades. Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to “wake up” and take decisive action to prevent terror activity in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Addressing a parliamentary committee, Barak also praised the work of Israeli forces in thwarting the attack, saying, “vigilant IDF troops foiled an attack that could have produced many casualties.”

Israel has repeatedly complained about poor security in Sinai following the overthrow of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, last year. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits, jihadists and Palestinian terrorists from the adjoining Gaza Strip fill the vacuum, tearing at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel.

Former Deputy IDF Chief of General Staff and former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel told Army Radio that, “Egypt either does not want or does not have the power to stop Islamist terror in Sinai.”

Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counterterrorism Bureau, also told Army Radio on Monday that the attack constituted a definite escalation by terrorist organizations. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators who carried out this attack took a huge risk in involving Egyptian security personnel,” he said.

Egyptian security had reportedly ignored Israeli warnings of an impending attack. Last week, an Egyptian security source accused Israeli travel agencies of being behind Israeli authorities’ warnings to Israeli tourists in Sinai, urging them to leave.

“It has become common in Israel for travel agencies to spread these rumors to keep Israeli tourists inside Israel instead of going to Sinai, which causes losses for these agencies,” the source told the German news agency DPA.

The terrorists were armed with explosives belts, guns, bombs and other weapons, and were apparently planning a large demonstration of power, the initial investigation into the incident suggested.

“Considering the explosives that the terrorists brought in the small vehicle that exploded at the start, and the explosives belts fitted on six or eight terrorists inside that armored vehicle, there is no doubt that their entry into an Israeli town or a military base by surprise could have incurred extensive damage,” Barak said.

“This was an extremely successful joint operation of the IAF and Armored Corps. The speed of the cooperation between the various forces enabled us to thwart a terror attack within 15 minutes, according to the assessments. I would like to express my appreciation for the troops’ vigilance, specifically that of the intelligence personnel, and the determination of the soldiers operating in the field,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Meanwhile, an initial investigation into the incident revealed that the second vehicle had penetrated a full 2 kilometers into Israeli territory before it was destroyed, and that military troops had pursued the vehicle at high speed, complete with gunfire, on a civilian road alongside civilian vehicles.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on television shortly after the attack, following an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, and declared that the perpetrators of the attack would “pay a high price.”

“What happened [Sunday] is a criminal attack by our enemies upon our sons from the armed forces at a border point, the sons of whom were martyred at that place, while they were taking part in a fast-breaking Ramadan meal. These martyrs’ blood will not be shed in vain,” he said. “My deepest condolences go out to the families of these martyrs, and our condolences to the Egyptian people.”

The attack was an early diplomatic test for Morsi, an Islamist who assumed office at the end of June after staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year in a popular uprising. The attack may also complicate Egypt’s relations with Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip and is close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, if it emerges that Palestinian gunmen were involved.

In a statement posted on the website of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, Hamas also condemned “the ugly crime committed today against the Egyptian soldiers, and sent its condolences to the families of the victims, to Egypt’s president and to his government.”

Editorial Cartoon: The New Face of Sinai


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