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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).