If Israel bombed a Sudanese munitions factory, as Khartoum alleges, the raid was part of its widening proxy war against Islamist militants in neighbouring Egypt which the Jewish state is reluctant to confront directly.
A huge explosion ripped through the factory near the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Tuesday, killing two people, with Sudan swiftly accusing Israel of sending four military planes to take out the complex.
The poor Muslim east African state, with its ties to Iran and Sunni jihadis, has long been seen by Israel as a conduit for weapons smuggled onward to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, via the Egyptian Sinai desert.
With Sinai itself becoming a seedbed of al Qaeda-inspired cadres during Cairo’s political upheaval, the Israelis now fear such arms could be used against them from within Egyptian territory. That puts Israel in a strategic bind, laid bare by the half-dozen guerrilla attacks it absorbed over the Egyptian border in recent months.
The countries’ landmark 1979 peace accord precludes Israeli military action, whether preventive or retaliatory, in the Sinai, and Israel is highly unlikely to risk even a one-off breach given Egypt’s unsympathetic new Islamist-led government.
Israel’s response, government and military sources said, has been to hit first against those on Egypt’s periphery suspected of links to the Sinai militants.
That has meant stepped-up up air strikes on Gazans accused of plotting operations in Sinai, and - to judge by reports from Khartoum - similar escalation in Sudan, to Egypt’s south.
Israel has never confirmed or denied carrying out attacks on Sudanese targets. But Israeli defence officials admit placing a high priority on tracking arms trafficking through the country.
The monitoring, one retired official said, dates back to the previous government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which waged a 2008-2009 Gaza war to crush Palestinian rocket fire and found itself fending off fierce censure abroad over the civilian toll.
Since early in 2009, shortly before the centrist Olmert was succeeded by the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, Sudan has accused Israel of carrying out several strikes on its territory. The sense of a far-flung covert campaign was further fuelled by the Israelis’ alleged assassination of a senior Hamas armourer in Dubai in 2010 and abduction for trial of a suspected Palestinian rocket expert from Ukraine the following year.
Commenting tersely on Israel’s strategy, the ex-official said it aimed to “stem the flow of arms (to Sinai and Gaza) without triggering major confrontations”.
“This is all the more relevant today,” the ex-official said, referring to instability in Egypt and surging Sinai militancy.