A surge in terror activity by Al Qaeda affiliates in Sinai is frightening tourists in the southern Israel resort town of Eilat, and that’s making city officials and business leaders very nervous. It’s infuriating the Egyptian military. And it’s hardening Israeli attitudes toward the peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Not surprisingly, it’s also reopening the perennial debate between Israel’s political and security leaders over how far to trust the neighbors.
Rocket fire from Sinai prompted a rare, late-night alert in Eilat that sent residents and tourists scrambling for shelter at 1:00 a.m. on August 13, the day before formal peace talks were to open in Jerusalem. A single Grad rocket aimed at the city center was shot down by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery that had been stationed in Eilat a month earlier, in response to another rocket threat.
Just five days before this attack, on August 8, Eilat’s airport had shut down for several hours following an Egyptian army warning of a likely jihadist attack. The plotters of that earlier attack were killed in an aerial strike on August 9. The August 13 rocket was claimed to be retaliation — though intelligence sources said it was simply follow-through on the earlier plan.
The political impact of the attack was immediately obvious in the news reporting of the event. Most reports identified the attackers as jihadist organizations based among the Bedouin tribes in Sinai. Two different jihadist groups claimed credit for the attack, although only one of the claims appeared to have credibility.
But one news outlet, Israel Hayom, which is closely identified with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attributed the attack to a “Palestinian terror organization.” The Israel Hayom report was picked up by a right-leaning wire service, Jewish News Service, which then distributed it to community news operations in the Diaspora.
The Israel Hayom version was not entirely fanciful. One of the jihadi groups, the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, or Maglis Shoura al-Mujahideen fi Aknas Beit al-Maqdis, has a small presence in Gaza as well as Sinai. That makes the Palestinian label at least plausible (though the common rendering as “Maglis” rather than “Majlis” shows the group’s Egyptian, non-Palestinian roots).
The other group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (“Supporters of the Holy Temple”), also known as Ansar Jerusalem, is based entirely among Sinai Bedouin tribes, where it has been active for several years. Ansar is believed by most sources to be responsible for the Eilat attack (though The New York Times attributed it to the Shura Council).
But calling the attackers “Palestinian” serves a political purpose. It creates the appearance of a connection between the jihadist, Al Qaeda-linked attackers and Israel’s negotiating partners. That strengthens the Israeli claim that the Palestinians don’t accept Israel and can’t be trusted.