Eilat, Israel — An airliner full of carefree vacationers dips out of a cloudless sky on a final descent to Eilat and the desert around Israel’s toehold on the Red Sea sizzles with unseen military activity.
The scene repeats every half hour or so, servicing the busy Israeli hotels squeezed into the 11-km (7-mile) sliver of coast between Jordan and Egypt. But with the threat of anti-aircraft missile attacks from Egypt-based militants increasing, security precautions are being stepped up to unprecedented levels.
High-tech electronics, hundreds of human eyes on the ground, defensive weaponry and tighter coordination with Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula are all part of “Operation Hourglass” - the Israeli response to an influx of weaponry and Islamist guerrillas into the sandy tracts across the border.
As well as providing Israel with a strategic Asian cargo port and naval base, Eilat’s year-round sun and coral-rich blue water generate a quarter of the tourism revenue that the country counts among its prime sources of foreign currency income.
Israel has invested heavily in security around Eilat since the fall of U.S.-backed Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Earlier this year it completed a 250-km (160-mile) barrier with Egypt, stretching from Eilat’s outskirts to the Palestinian Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.
Officials have also shown Reuters a range of other measures being taken to defend against jihadists in Sinai - including an innovative, Israeli-designed missile deflector aboard planes.
This month’s military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president has raised expectations in Israel that Cairo will crack down harder in the lawless and craggy peninsula and Israeli commanders say it responds quickly to reported threats.
But Egyptian forces are stretched: since the July 3 takeover, militants have attacked their security checkpoints in Sinai almost daily, killing at least 20 people, and staged assaults on a gas pipeline to Jordan, a Christian priest, and on Eilat, where remains of a rocket were found in a desert area.
It was the latest in dozen cross-border attacks since the Arab Spring. Most were harmless but they included a bloody assault in August 2012 in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an attack Egypt blamed on militants.
Israel believes disorder in protest-riven Egypt, coupled with arms smuggled in from Libya, has increased the threat to Eilat. Security action, however, is being kept discreet to avoid scaring off the very visitors it aims to keep.
A limited-circulation official Eilat security estimate seen by Reuters ranked an attack on an Israeli aircraft as less likely than cross-border shelling - incidents that have happened sporadically, with jihadis, apparently in a rush to flee, inaccurately firing short-range rockets that caused no damage.