After attacks on a bus and a car and later on another target a bit north of the Israeli southern city of Eilat along the border between the Israeli Negev and the Egyptian Sinai on Thursday, there is incomprehension at subsequent Israeli air strikes on Gaza.
The Israeli attacks on Gaza, hundreds of kilometers to the north, were in retaliation for attacks by unknown persons apparently wearing Egyptian military uniforms.
The New York Times reported from Cairo and Israel that “The attacks [n.b. – which in its later stages looked more like a battle in Eilat] on Thursday began about midday when gunmen opened fire on an Israeli passenger bus carrying soldiers and civilians from the southern city of Beersheba to Eilat. The Israeli military said other attackers fired on a second bus and on two civilian vehicles at another point on the road, which runs along the Egyptian border, and detonated a roadside bomb near Israeli soldiers who were on their way to the scene of the initial attack … The attacks unfolded over several hours, with the second of the soldiers being shot to death at nightfall. Television images from the scene showed shattered windows and bullet holes in the first bus. The second bus, which was empty except for the driver, was a burned-out shell. Military officials said it appeared that a suicide bomber had detonated explosives alongside it”. It total, 8 Israelis were killed [1 soldier, and 1 police sniper], and some 30 were wounded. This report is published here.
Time magazine reported that “Israel shut down all roads into Eilat and sent hundreds of troops on a manhunt. Officials said seven attackers were killed, three inside Israel and four in Egypt — two by Israeli forces in hot pursuit, and two by actual Egyptian soldiers, according to reports. An Israeli military official said the hunt would continue. ‘This kind of operations requires more than seven people’, he said”. The Time article said that “What headlines described as a terrorist attack in the desert just north of the Israeli resort city of Eilat was in fact a sustained assault, a complex military attack that included missiles, mortars, improvised explosive devices, small arms and, on the bodies of two of the seven assailants killed, explosive vests”. Time’s article is published here.
The initial attack took place near an Egyptian military encampment. It was reported on Friday that between three and five [or, now six?] Egyptian soldiers were killed by the IDF as they were in hot pursuit of the attackers. Egypt made a formal protest on Friday.
[This brings the number of those killed in and near Eilat on Thursday to 8 Israelis, 6 Egyptian soldiers, and 7 attackers — whoever they turn out to be — for a total of 21 dead in these attacks. And, at least ten Palestinians were then killed in retaliatory Israeli attacks on Gaza so far, making a total of 31 in the past 36 hours or so. Casualties in Gaza are mounting by the hour now. On Friday evening, the Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, called off the truce it proclaimed with Israel on 18 January 2009, at the end of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead …]
The New York Times report noted that “Egyptian security officials said that the three officers were killed when an Israeli aircraft fired at people suspected of being militants who fled into a crowd of security personnel on the Egyptian side of the border on Thursday … On Friday, a few hundred people demonstrated outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, demanding that the Israeli ambassador be expelled”.
Haaretz reported that ” ‘Egypt has filed an official protest to Israel over the incidents at the border yesterday (Thursday) and demands an urgent investigation over the reasons and circumstances surrounding the deaths of three of Egypt’s forces’, the Egyptian army said in a statement after a meeting of the ruling military council. The circumstances of the deaths were not immediately clear. The army said it had launched its own investigation”. This is published here.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said in a short televised address on Thursday evening, just hours after the attacks, saying that “We all witnessed today an attempt to escalate the terrorist war against Israel by launching of attacks from the Sinai. If there is someone who thinks that the State of Israel will let this pass, he is mistaken. I have set out a principle – when the citizens of Israel are attacked, we respond immediately and with strength. That principle was implemented today. Those who gave the order to murder our citizens, while hiding in Gaza, are no longer among the living. I commend the IDF and the security services who eliminated today in Gaza the senior figures of the organization which carried out the terror attacks in the south. I commend the soldiers, police, and members of the security services who acted swiftly, determinately and bravely against the terrorists, and who thereby prevented an even greater tragedy. If the terrorist organizations believe that they can attack our citizens and get away with it, they will soon learn how wrong they are. We will exact a price, a very heavy price”.
Some Israeli officials — including Defense Minister Ehud Barak — blamed Gaza groups, while Hamas denied any involvement. One senior leader of the Popular Resistance Committees [PRC] and several of his associates were reported killed in Israeli airstrikes yesterday evening, as was at least one small child.
Haaretz reported on Friday that Netanyahu said this afternoon that “the targeted killing of the Popular Resistance Committee heads was only the beginning of Israel’s response to the attacks in South”. This is published here.
On Friday afternoon, the PRC denied any involvement in the previous days attacks in Eilat. But, they are among the groups in Gaza reportedly claiming rocket attacks on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reported that “The PRC members killed in the retaliatory IAF air strike included the head of the terror group Kamal Nirab, who the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said had personally directed and planned the attack.
Another man killed in the strike was identified as Amas Hamed, commander of the PRC’s military wing and a resident of Rafah. The Shin Bet said that Hamed was involved in the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in June 2006 and oversaw numerous attacks against Israel including suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Two other known PRC terrorists, including one who was also involved in Schalit’s abduction, were also killed in the air strike. ‘The terrorists were directly involved in the attacks along the Israeli-Egyptian border’, a security official said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the IDF would escalate its response to the attacks. Egypt had lost its grip over Sinai Peninsula and terrorist organizations were able to move around there freely, he said. ‘The IDF has already struck the heads of the PRC in Gaza and if there will be a need, the strikes will intensify’,Barak said”. This story is published here.
During the week, talks aimed at an exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in late June 2006 and presumably held since then somewhere in Gaza, were taking place in Cairo; a senior Hamas leader based in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, was reported to be among those participating.
Another story in the Jerusalem Post, written by Defense Correspondent Yaakov Katz, said that Israeli military and security forces had known for days that there might be an attack in the same area, but thought it would be carried out differently.
Katz wrote in this JPost piece that “Israel had several days to prepare for the attack that took place on Thursday near the Netafim border crossing with Egypt. Intelligence provided several days earlier by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) referred to a large attack that the Popular Resistance Committees planned to launch from the Sinai Peninsula. For that reason, the Golani Brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion – a member of which was killed in the attack – and the Israel Police’s YAMAM Counter-terrorism Unit were already deployed along the border and able to respond quickly to neutralize the terrorists.
Had they not been there, a senior IDF officer said Thursday, the number of casualties would have been significantly higher.
The problem, though, was that the army prepared for a different attack. It thought, for example, that the terrorists from the Gaza-based PRC were mostly interested in abducting a soldier or a civilian, and would therefore infiltrate Israel in the middle of the night and not, as they did, in the middle of the day. For that reason, the IDF also did not think that the gunmen would cross into Israel where they did, since it is directly under an Egyptian military outpost”. This is posted here.
Still, strangely, there were no major warnings issued to the Israeli public.
Katz added that “The problem is that unlike in the Gaza Strip, Israel will not – and likely cannot – act freely militarily-speaking
when it comes to Egypt, even if it knows about a ticking terrorist bomb. Ties with the interim regime have been tense ever since Mubarak was overthrown in February, and an Israeli attack on Egyptian soil – no matter what the target and the legitimacy – would not be taken lightly. For that reason, the IDF was extra careful on Thursday when shooting into Egypt territory in response to gunfire from Sinai. In one case, soldiers crossed the border by several meters and neutralized the terrorists. They immediately retreated. In response to the attacks on Thursday, the IDF will likely maintain a larger presence along the border and the Defense Ministry will speed up construction of the security barrier it has been building there for a year”…
A similar report by Ron Ben Yishai was published on Israel’s YNet website tonight, here. It went even further, however, and said: “The combined offensive was well-planned for a long time. Intelligence was collected by more than 10 people who left Gaza through the Philadelphi Route tunnels, wearing uniform resembling that of the Egyptian army … The IDF boosted its forces in the area with Golani troops. The police sent special elite units to Eilat, likely assuming that the attack would take place within or near the city. But the terrorists surprised them. They acted north of Eilat. The mountainous area and breached border allowed the terrorists not only to reach Israel secretly, but also to escape into Sinai shortly after carrying out the attack. They knew very well that the IDF would avoid chasing them into the peninsula so as not to violate the Egyptian sovereignty. To be on the safe side, they chose to come out directly from an Egyptian military post located on the border. It’s unlikely that the Egyptian soldiers didn’t notice them, but they did nothing to stop them or warn the Israelis of their arrival. Later, they even fired on IDF forces dispatched to the area, probably with the intention of covering for the terrorists who remained alive and continued to exchange fire with the Israeli soldiers. This cooperation with terrorists is a phenomenon which must be dealt with”.
This YNet report noted that “the eight-minister forum decided last week – following Barak’s recommendation – to allow additional Egyptian forces into Sinai, in spite of the fact that this is an alleged violation of the peace agreement, which bans the entry of massive Egyptian forces into the peninsula. Indeed, the Egyptians have launched their own operation in the area. But this operation is aimed, first and foremost, at serving their own economic and governmental interests, thus focusing on northern Sinai, where the gas pipeline passes, and El Arish, the center of Egyptian rule in the peninsula. The operation has already been partially successful. Bedouins have fled to the high mountain range of central Sinai, knowing that the Egyptian forces will face difficulties fighting them there. It’s reasonable to assume that the Thursday’s terrorists arrived from that area by car and later by foot”.
Therefore, the YNet report argued, Israel now “should seriously consider demanding that Egypt let the IDF occasionally send forces into central Sinai, to the area near the border, in order to foil attacks and pursue terrorists. At least until the border fence is fully completed. We let them send their forces in, now it’s their turn to show some flexibility”…
Meanwhile, some 10 rockets (including Grads, apparently) were fired into Israel from Gaza during the day Friday, landing near Ashdod and Ashkelon, with some damage and light injuries reported, with some cases of hysteria being treated in Israel.
Last night, and overnight, there were some five other rockets/projectiles fired. The IAF deployed Iron Dome near Ashkelon and Beersheva — and the IDF reported four interceptions for the five rockets fired, the other landed in an open area.
Throughout the week, there was a lower level of violence, with several people including a mentally-disabled youth killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza, and with rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza into peripheral areas in Israel.
One projectile fired from Gaza landed “north of Beersheva”, according to an Israeli statement. A possible danger to Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in that area, was not publicly mentioned.
A week ago (last Friday), Israel allowed an exceptional deployment of 1,000 [or maybe even up to 2,000?] Egyptian troops and tanks into Sinai — the second exceptional deployment since February [some 150 Egyptian soldiers were allowed to enter, then, for the first time since the Camp David treaty, and it’s not clear if they stayed until now, or not]. Egyptian troops are reportedly now deployed along the Philadelphi Route dividing the two sides of Rafah.
A “suicide bomber” is said to have exploded this morning among Egyptian soldiers near the Philadelphi route on Friday morning (reportedly killing at least 2 persons).
The reported suicide bomber near Eilat and this second one along the Gaza border are the first in several years.
Previously the Sinai was “demilitarized”, according to the Camp David treaty. Israel allowed only 750 Egyptian civilian police — described as mostly border security and customs officials — despite Egyptian requests for reinforcements in recent years.
There have been some six attacks since February in the northern Sinai on the gas pipeline transporting Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan, and quite a lot of reported tension recently between “Bedouin tribes” and Egyptian police…
The Israeli attacks on Gaza were continuing into Friday night, as were the firing of Grads and other projectiles from Gaza into Israel. More PRC members were killed, along with other civilians, including children.
Amnesty International issued a statement on Friday noted what is obvious here — that civilians are at grave risk. Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, said in the statement that “The civilian deaths and injuries over the last two days in Israel and Gaza are deeply alarming and the escalating attacks underline the need for both sides to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties … Palestinian armed groups must immediately cease firing indiscriminate rockets into Israel. For their part, Israeli forces must comply with the same rules of international humanitarian law, which prohibit attacks on civilians and indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. All parties must distinguish between civilians and military targets”.