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.