Sinai's Surge in Islamist Terror Gives Israel Jitters

Al Qaeda Group Entrenched a Stone's Throw From Eilat

Sinai Surge: Israel is jittery over a surge in Islamist terror activity in the stark and lawless Sinai desert, which brings jihadists within a couple of miles of the resort town of Eilat.
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Sinai Surge: Israel is jittery over a surge in Islamist terror activity in the stark and lawless Sinai desert, which brings jihadists within a couple of miles of the resort town of Eilat.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 18, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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The question of what to call the Sinai jihadists goes to the heart of Israel’s escalating territorial debate. Israel’s intelligence services, like Egypt’s, see the jihadis mainly as foreign agitators who have gained a foothold among the Bedouin in Sinai by exploiting the tribes’ longstanding alienation from Cairo. Over the past two years they’ve engaged in several bloody firefights with Egyptian police and military.

The Israeli security establishment highly values its relationship with the Egyptian military. The ties remained strong even after the Muslim Brotherhood took power, confirming the view of the Israeli brass that peace agreements are durable. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority is at least as successful as with Egypt. But the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is putting strains on the security relationship. Making peace with a Palestinian state is regarded as an urgent necessity in order to preserve the military relationship.

That’s why, from the standpoint of the brass, the jihadi-inspired instability rocking the region doesn’t weaken the case for a peace agreement but strengthens it. It’s probably no accident that the same issue of Israel Hayom where the Maglis was called “Palestinian” featured an op-ed essay by the former commander of the Israeli navy, Eliezer Marom, urging a quiet alliance with the Assad regime in Syria to resist a jihadi rebel victory. Syria has kept its border with Israel quiet for four decades. In today’s Middle East, that qualifies as downright neighborly.

By contrast, the current Israeli political leadership regards the Palestinians as inherently untrustworthy. Netanyahu and his closest allies see the Palestinians’ security cooperation with Israel as a tactical ploy to win Israel’s trust and clear the way for statehood, after which cooperation will be unnecessary. Moreover, it’s widely believed that an independent Palestine would be taken over by Hamas, abandon cooperation and resume armed attacks.

Ansar Jerusalem is believed to have set down roots in Sinai in the chaos that followed the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It was responsible for the August 2011 attack on an Israeli bus near Eilat that left eight civilians dead. That attack prompted a hurried reinforcement of the 165-mile Sinai border fence, which was originally built to deter immigrants along the once lightly patrolled frontier. Since the fence became a wall, Ansar has given up trying to infiltrate and concentrated on launching rockets at Eilat. The August 13 attack was the first that came close to the city center.

The Shura Council is newer. It was announced in June 2012 as an attempt to merge several small Salafi groups in Gaza and Sinai. Its first attack came that month, when two members crossed into Israel, laid down an improvised explosive device and then fired on an Israeli jeep, killing a construction worker. It’s also staged two rocket attacks. Most of its members now appear to be in Hamas prisons, accused variously of plotting to overthrow the Hamas government or violating Hamas’s Egyptian-brokered 2011 cease-fire with Israel.

The jihadis’ attitude toward Hamas is mixed. On one hand, they regularly call for cooperation, since they share similar ideologies and goals. On the other hand, they often accuse Hamas of being part of the Zionist conspiracy, since it maintains its two-year-old cease-fire with Israel and regularly arrests the jihadis — or worse — for violating it.

For the same reason, some Israeli current and former intelligence officials, led by former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, see Hamas as a potential partner with Fatah and Israel in détente. Simple self-preservation, after repeated battering by the Israeli military, has moderated the group’s taste for confronting Israel. And the arrival of Al Qaeda has given Hamas and Israel a common enemy. In the words of the country song, it’s not love — but it’s not bad.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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