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Lior Ben-Simon, Eilat police spokesman, declined to discuss threat scenarios other than to say that an aviation disaster “is something we and all other relevant agencies have prepared for”.
The Israelis do not want to embarrass Egypt by publicly demanding tougher safeguards in Taba, the Sinai town closest to Eilat and which would be the likely launching ground for the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as man-portable air-defence systems or MANPADs. Their ranges rarely exceed 5 km (2.5 miles).
“The risk to our planes is being taken into account but with much necessary discretion, given the importance of preserving our peace with Egypt,” said Asaf Agmon, a retired Israeli air force brigadier-general who runs the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, a think-tank near Tel Aviv.
Since 2011, Agmon said, Israel has frequently rerouted planes so that they land in Eilat from the north, rather than the standard southern approach skirting the Egyptian frontier.
When the latter path is taken, planes bank sooner and more steeply over the Red Sea gulf to reduce their exposure to Taba.
In emergencies or rare low-visibility weather, Israel can redirect Eilat-bound aviation to Ovda, a semi-military airport 60 km (38 miles) inland. It also plans to open a new and bigger airport in Timna, 19 km (11 miles) to the north, by 2017. That would allow for the closure of Eilat’s cramped airport, whose sole runway hugs a tight strip of luxury beachfront resorts.
NO BLIND LUCK
Israel had a galvanising brush with MANPADs when al Qaeda tried to shoot down a planeload of its tourists over Kenya in 2002. Those two missiles happened to miss, but the Israelis scrambled to find a technological alternative to luck.
The result was C-Music, a bathtub-sized undercarriage pod designed by Elbit Systems Ltd.(ESLT.TA) which “blinds” incoming missiles’ heat-seeking warheads with a laser. As of last month, C-Music was being fitted on select jets from national carriers El Al, Arkia and Israir, with the Israeli government footing the $1.5 million unit cost, a security official said.
C-Music can be rotated among aircraft “in less than an hour, with the turn of a few screws”, the official said. That would allow Israel to decide at short notice whether to protect Eilat-bound flights, depending on the level of danger seen from Sinai.
“Yes, Eilat is a high priority, but there are other high-priority destinations,” the official said. “Much of the preventive work is being done by the forces on the ground.”
That referred to the hundreds of Israeli army lookouts, some in camouflaged ambush positions and others perched before surveillance screens in hi-tech bunkers, who strain to spot any unusual presence just over the border in Egypt whenever aircraft approach Eilat. Liaison officers free up telephone hotlines that might be needed for urgent calls to their Egyptian counterparts.
The Israelis assume MANPADs would be fired by two- or three-man crews, a presence hard to hide, though the towering and deeply fissured red buttes around Taba might provide some cover.
To overcome that, troops closely patrol the 5-metre (yard) high razor-wire border fence, guided by cameras that peer far into Egyptian territory with thermal imaging to spot body heat at night. Eilat is rowelled with 70 metre (210 foot) hilltop radar masts that help map out the frontier and movements there.
Israel has also occasionally deploying its Iron Dome aerial defence system in Eilat over the past few months.
The Sinai is largely demilitarised under the 1979 accord but Egypt, in coordination with Israel, has been increasing the troop presence there to tackle jihadis and arms traffic to Palestinians in the neighbouring Gaza Strip.
Top Egyptian army officers say they are liaising with Israel on Sinai. One senior army officer said: “the Egyptian army is prepared to handle a (major) operation against militants there but is delaying it until the internal situation calms on fears that such a move could trigger militant attacks in Cairo and other cities witnessing unrest”.
The Taba area’s sparsely distributed watchtowers and largely empty roads facing Israel suggest it has not received many reinforcements from Cairo. But Israeli commanders voice satisfaction with the responsiveness of Egyptian counterparts who, they say, quickly deploy to intercept anyone suspicious.
“Usually it takes no more than three phone calls (between the sides) and the problem is dealt with,” said one colonel.
An Israeli general, who like other army officers would not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters that Egyptian authorities were taking preventive action because they “understand that any fire on Eilat would do it terrible damage”.