October 23, 2014 | Policy Brief

Sinai’s Volatility Increasingly Unites Egypt and Israel

October 23, 2014 | Policy Brief

Sinai’s Volatility Increasingly Unites Egypt and Israel

Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula carried out a cross-border shooting attack on Wednesday, leaving an Israeli female company commander moderately wounded and a male soldier in serious condition. Egyptian media quoted a security source attributing the attack to the extremist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, while the Israeli military blamed drug smugglers. Regardless of the culprit, the incident could serve to intensify Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation.

Sinai armed groups have launched dozens of attacks against Egyptian military and security forces since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 – mostly in Sinai but increasingly in Cairo and elsewhere on the mainland. In response, Egypt has waged a sustained military campaign against Sinai extremists since August 2012, including air strikes and ground operations, as well as the destruction of at least 1,600 smuggling tunnels to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Despite the fact that at least 20 attacks have targeted Israel since Mubarak’s ouster, the Jewish state has not engaged in military operations in Egyptian territory. Israel has refrained from engaging militants on Egyptian soil since signing the 1979 Camp David Accords peace treaty with Cairo. The only exception came in August 2013, when an Israeli drone appears to have struck Sinai militants with Egypt’s permission, and conceivably at its behest.

The recent Sinai security challenges have prompted the Israelis and Egyptians to cooperate in other ways, too. On more than two dozen occasions, Israel has acceded to Egyptian requests to exceed the 1979 treaty’s limits, including deploying U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters. On a handful of such occasions, Egypt has done so without Israeli permission, but Egypt’s then-defense minister and now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reportedly contacted his Israeli counterparts to assuage any fears.

Israel last year completed a fortified fence along its Egyptian border – the diminutive country’s longest frontier – in a bid to control the flow of asylum seekers and economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. The fence, however, has also had the added benefit of tamping down the threat of Sinai terrorism. While the years 2011 and 2012 brought a number of major Sinai-based attacks on Israel, this year and last have seen no major terror activity from the peninsula against Israelis – until Wednesday.

During the Mubarak era, the only Israeli artillery guns stationed along the border were the M-71 155mm howitzer – a towed artillery piece (most contemporary artillery is self-propelled) that Israel developed in the 1970s for the Shah’s Iran. The instability of the three years, since Egypt’s revolution, have spurred Israel to reinforce that border, installing advanced surveillance technology and creating a new Shin Bet (internal security) unit tasked solely with monitoring the Sinai. That process has been given new impetus by Wednesday’s attack; Israel has already dispatched additional forces to the attack site.

Egyptian-Israeli coordination over Sinai is already at a high point. The latest attack is unlikely to represent a potential crisis point between them, but rather the basis for further joint efforts to combat the common threats in the volatile peninsula that increasingly unites them.

Oren Kessler is Deputy Director for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Egypt Israel