What’s Happening in the Sinai?

It’s rather difficult to know what’s really happening in the Sinai.

On Friday, the eve of Egypt’s Presidential election run-off , two Grad/Katyusha missiles were fired into Israel’s Negev Desert north of Eilat. One landed near Mitzpe Ramon, while the other – not immediately discovered until the next day, probably in partly because of the slowdown of activities at the start of the Jewish Sabbath – landed further to the south, in the Arava Region, near the Uvda military base.
Ron Yishai, military analyst for Israel’s YNet, reported here that “the security establishment has ruled out the possibility that it was launched from Jordan”.

Though propaganda and spin are abundant after attacks in this area, reliable and verifiable information is hard to come by. A main reason is the strict control over information exercised by both Israel and Egypt officials after incidents possibly involving their forces there — regarded by as essential to contain the damage, keep relations on an even keel, and protect the peace treaty.

An article in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, based on information from Israeli military sources, later noted that though many rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, “none have ever reached this region north of Eilat” – which seemed to discount the idea of a launch from Gaza, though these missiles do have a reported range of 50 km [about 30 miles].

So, the working theory appears to be that the missiles were fired from mysterious spaces inside Egypt’s demilitarized Sinai. There have been three earlier missile attacks from the Sinai — the biggest one, with the most casualties [8 Israelis and 6 Egyptians killed in hot pursuit, including at least 2 members of the Egyptian Armed Forrces] was last August.

Each time, as now, Gaza was accused of being behind the attacks — and Israeli reprisals were carried out on Gaza.

Israeli officials say they consider Hamas, as the ruling force in Gaza, ultimately responsible for any act directed against Israel coming from Gaza, regardless of who actually carries it out. Israel apparently believes it is being attacked by Hamas on two fronts — the long arm of Hamas has been accused of being ultimately behind the attacks from Egypt’s Sinai as well as for years of indiscriminate firing of smaller rockets from Gaza.

A senior Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, issued a strong denial Sunday of Egyptian media reports that “Hamas would sent militants to Egypt via the smuggling tunnels in order to carry out attacks which would cause chaos during elections”. To the contrary, Zahar said, “security and stability in Egypt best serve the Palestinian people”. He added that “The current democratic experience in Egypt – which has historically played a pioneering role in the region — will aid the Palestinian cause”. Thiref=”s report was published here.

The military correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Avi Issacharoff, reported a sensational new theory on Saturday and Sunday, attributed to an otherwise unidentified “senior Israeli military officer”, that the “request” or directive for the rocket launches from Sinai originated from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, though the order was actually transmitted by Hamas in Gaza and carried out by a gang of Bedouin/Islamist operatives in the Sinai. The idea, it was said, was to disrupt the Egyptian presidential elections.

This claim of coordination was greeted with a certain amount of skepticism and disbelief – especially as the Muslim Brotherhood, poised on the edge of victory, would seem to have had no interest in disrupting the elections which they were convinced they were about to win.

Israeli political and military echelons quickly realized that this assertion put the Israeli leadership at a grave disadvantage – particularly considering that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate might actually win the election run-off and become the next President of Egypt. How could Israel be seen to deal with a new President of Egypt who stood newly-accused by Israel of having remotely ordered the launching of rogue missile attacks on Israeli territory?

By Sunday evening, The Telegraph of London reported Israeli efforts to rush to put out the fire. The Telegraph story was tellingly titled “Missile confusion threatens Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with Israel”, and the subtitle noted that “Confusion over the origin and intention of two grad missiles fired into southern Israel from the Egyptian Sinai on Friday are threatening to upset delicate diplomatic relations between Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood”.

And there do indeed appear to be delicate diplomatic relations. The Telegraph reported that “In an effort towards damage limitation, Maj-Gen [reserve]Amos Gilad, former chief political-military chief in Israel’s defense ministry who was involved for years in Egyptian-brokered negotiations with Hamas, took to national radio on Sunday morning to discount the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the incident”. Gilad told Israel Radio that “the Muslim Brotherhood is tied up in historic elections and does not have an operational wing taking part in terror activity.”

During Egypt’s presidential election campaign, Muslim Brotherhood officials said they would respect the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Israeli officials have said that the treaty is of paramount strategic importance.

By contrast, Hamas in Gaza has not committed to any of the PLO agreements with Israel – one of three conditions officially imposed by Israel and the Quartet before dealing in any way with Hamas.

An entirely separate Israeli concern was reported here by Jerusalem Post’s well-informed military correspondent and defense analyst Yaakov Katz, who wrote Sunday that Israel’s defense establishment was concerned that the attacks from Sinai might be a provocative attempt to bait Israel and draw it into a fight – so that any strong Israeli response would “become an issue within Egypt’s ongoing presidential elections”.

There have been calls in the Israeli media this week for the IDF to go into the Sinai to “clear out” the dangers emanating from there and threatening Israel. But, Katz and other Israeli journalists have all publicly concurred that Israel cannot respond as it might wish in the Sinai without gravely damaging relations with Egypt.

It is also a fact that Israel has over the past year quietly allowed the “temporary” deployment throughout the Sinai of Egyptian security and defense forces that Israel had previously opposed.
These deployments of Egyptian force, which Israel had vetoed previously, began in February 2011, after Egypt’s long-time strong man Husni Mubarak was ousted from the Presidency following massive and sustained protests over his abuses. Israel’s power to block previous Egyptian requests was rooted in its interpretation of the demilitarization clauses in the 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt.
In any case, the limited additional Egyptian deployment that Israel permitted after the fall of Mubarak did not stop a series of attacks through the past year or so in the northern Sinai, on the pipeline that carried Egyptian natural gas from the Sinai onward to Israel and also to Jordan.

The IDF did not indicate it had identified any group as being responsible either for Friday’s GRAD/Katyusha attacks or for Monday’s commando attack along the border. Nevertheless, Israeli punishment fell, predictably, on Gaza.

In reprisal for the Friday missile attacks, the Israeli military carried out strikes in Gaza on Sunday night, striking two targets in Gaza and wounding five Palestinians. According to the IDF, the first target hit “a weapon manufacturing facility in the southern Gaza Strip”, which Palestinian emergency services official in Gaza said was “a blacksmith’s workshop”, in southern Gaza. The IDF said the second hit was on “a terror activity site in the central Gaza Strip”, which Palestinian sources said was “a military site south of Gaza City used by the al-Qassam Brigades”.

In other words, the attacks were limited.

Then, at dawn on Monday, there was a new escalation: an attack of mysterious origin along the Israel-Sinai border about 30 miles from Gaza. The IDF reported that heavily armed commandos, wearing “camouflage uniforms and helmets”, attacked a site where Israeli companies are working under Army contracts to complete construction a Wall to keep out what Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu calls “infiltrators”, mainly from Africa. The IDF said the attackers “detonated a roadside bomb and fired anti-tank rockets at two Israeli vehicles”, then fired Kalashnikov assault rifles. [Last year, the IDF offered as proof that the big attack from Sinai near Eilat originated in Gaza the fact that the weaponry and some of the equipment found on dead assailants is also used by militant groups in Gaza.] Two of Monday’s still-unidentified attackers were reportedly killed, one on the spot and one who was pursued after fleeing, at least one of them died when explosives he was carrying blew up. One or more may have escaped into the Sinai, the IDF said.

Egyptian officials said they quickly brought the situation under control, a few hours after Monday morning’s commando attack. But Israeli officials see things differently.

“IDF officers define the situation in the Sinai border as ‘unclear’, and believe that certain parts of the Sinai Peninsula are considered ‘no man’s land’”, Haaretz reported on Sunday. The IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Naveh recently said the Sinai Peninsula was “a terror area, not a demilitarized zone between two state who signed a peace treaty.” This Haaretz report is published here.

An Israeli tank was briefly deployed at the border as Monday’s attack was contained, and an IDF surveillance balloon is now hovering overhead to monitor activity there.

Whatever its suspicions are, Israel’s behavior towards Egypt cannot be like its reprisals in Gaza. On Monday, Katz wrote here that “while Israel can retaliate and respond militarily to attacks from Gaza, its hands are – for the time being – tied in face of the same threats it faces from Egypt … Ties with the regime are already tense ever since Mubarak was overthrown last February and an Israeli attack on Egyptian soil – no matter what the target and the legitimacy – would not be taken lightly”.

However, despite the SCAF announcement Sunday night that it [and not the new President] would be in charge of all military affairs — and despite Israel’s insistence on controlling the number of Egyptian armed forces to be allowed in the Sinai — Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday morning that Egypt’s new President would be held responsible: “We see here a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control in the Sinai. We are waiting for the results of the election. Whoever wins, we expect them to take responsibility for all of Egypt’s international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai, swiftly putting an end to these attacks”.

Meanwhile, the Director General of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Udi Shani, said Monday that the aim of the attack “was to stop the construction of the fence but our job is to finish it as quickly as possible.” The Wall should be completed by 2013.

Israel’s Defense Ministry issued a statement that “approximately 100 contracted companies” are currently working on the Wall along Israel’s 230-kilometer border with the Sinai.

?The IDF Spokesperson for the international press, Avital Leibovich, sent out Tweets [@AvitalLeibovich] saying that “Approx 180 km of the border fence between Egypt and Israel was completed”, and that “The infiltration occurred in an area in which the border fence was partially built”.

An Israeli construction worker, identified in a Tweet by the Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent and defense analyst Yaakov Katz [@yaakovkatz] as “Israeli-Arab from Haifa, and father of four”, was killed, as were two of the attackers. The Israeli victim was later identified as Said Phashpashe.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said Monday afternoon that the attack “was initiated against workers building our security fence on the Egyptian border. This will not stop us. This fence is designed to prevent both terrorism and the entry of infiltrators. Its construction is a supreme national interest. I believe that if we hadn’t decided two years ago to build the fence, we would be facing a flood of infiltrators and – no less than this – a flood of terrorism.”

Meanwhile, in Gaza – because Israel can, and does, attack there as it wishes — the IDF carried out a strike Monday morning on two men riding a motorcycle in Beit Hanoun. It did not link this to the attack further south, but instead explicitly said the targeted men were snipers who had carried out attacks on Israeli perimeter areas in the past week or so.

And it continued…

On Wednesday morning, the IDF announced that it had attacked a member of “Global Jihad” who the Israeli Security Services identified as being involved in Monday’s Sinai attack. Yaakov Katz said in a Tweet that the man targetted was a key Global Jihad operative in Gaza” [@yaakovkatz]. The “target” was wounded, but his “sidekick” was killed.

A video claimed that the Sinai attack had been carried out by a new group called “Majles Shoura al-Mujahideen – Beit al-Maqdis”, described as an “affiliate” of Al-Qaeda [n other words, an Islamist group]. Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy [?@Repent11] Tweeted that this may be part of a “tactic to convince Israel to allow more [Egyptian] troops [into Sinai] than Camp David entails”.

As reprisals from both sides continued following the mysterious attacks from the Sinai, Egyptian security and political officials were working to broker another “cease-fire” between Israel and Hamas in Gaza…

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