November 7, 2014 | The Weekly Standard

Sinai Crisis Binds Egypt and Israel

Last week, Sinai-based extremists targeted the North Sinai security headquarters with a massive blast, causing damage, but no injuries. Thankfully it wasn’t a replay of the attack last month that killed 33 security personnel in some of Egypt’s worst violence since the overthrow of former president, and Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi last summer. That combined car-bomb and shooting attack capped a week that also saw seven troops killed by a roadside bomb and two Israeli soldierswounded in a cross-border shooting. Even though the latest attacks give the lie to Cairo’s assurances that it was bringing jihad in Sinai to heel, they presage closer security cooperation with Israel, are already close.

The first embers of the Sinai insurgency were lit by the general security breakdown that accompanied the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The uprising’s current, blood-drenched phase, however, was sparked by the army’s July 2013 overthrow of Morsi.

Since that coup, hundreds of soldiers and security force officers have been killed in retribution attacks, both in Sinai and – since last year – on the Egyptian mainland. In response, Egypt has waged a military campaign including air strikes and ground operations, as well as the destruction of 95% ofsmuggling tunnels (some 1,600 in all) to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Immediately following last month’s attacks, Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency and his forces began destroying or evacuating hundreds of homes in the half-kilometer area abutting the territory.

Through it all, Israel has been an indispensable partner. Even during the height of this summer’s Gaza conflict, the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza enforced since Hamas forcibly took it over in 2007 remained intact. All throughout that war – during which Cairo and Jerusalem worked together to draft ceasefire proposals with little input from Washington – Israeli officials communicated daily with their Egyptian colleagues to take Cairo’s “temperature.” At least 2,127 Palestinians were ultimately killed in the fighting – at least half of them civilians – and both partners knew high death tolls would eventually turn Egyptian public opinion toward a ceasefire. Throughout, Egypt continued operations against the tunnels, and kept its lone crossing to Gaza mostly closed to people and aid.

Israel has come under shooting or rocket attack at least 20 times since Mubarak’s departure, but has been reluctant to conduct operations on Egyptian territory lest it jeopardize the 1979 Camp David Accords. One of the few exceptions came last summer, when an Israeli drone appears to have struckSinai militants with Egypt’s permission—and conceivably at its behest.

The 1979 treaty strictly restricts the scope and type of Egypt’s military installations in the Sinai. Still, on more than two dozen occasions since 2011, Israel has acceded to Egyptian requests to exceed the treaty’s limits, including the deployment of U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters to attack militants like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the Islamic State-affiliated group that has carried out the bulk of attacks in Sinai. On a handful of such occasions, Egypt has done so without Israeli permission – including deployingtanks in violation of Camp David – prompting the Israeli foreign minister to warn of the “slippery slope” of toying with the treaty. In response, Sisi (then Egypt’s defense minister) reportedly contacted his Israeli counterparts to assuage any fears.

The upsurge in violence has also shaken Israel out of its decades-long complacency over its Egyptian border. During the Mubarak era, the land defenses on that frontier – Israel’s longest – consisted almost entirely of towed artillery (most contemporary artillery is self-propelled) that the country had developed in the 1970s for the Shah’s Iran. Since 2011, however, the Israelis have installed advancedsurveillance technology and created a new Shin Bet (internal security) unit tasked solely with monitoring Sinai. That process has been given new impetus by last month’s attacks—Israel has already dispatched additional forces to the site where its soldiers were ambushed.

Last year, moreover, Israel completed a fortified fence along its Egyptian border in a bid to control the flow of asylum seekers and economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Happily for the Israelis, the fence has also tamped down the threat of Sinai terrorism. While the years 2011 and 2012 saw a number of major Sinai-based assaults on Israel, this year and last have brought no major cross-border attacks from the peninsula – until last month.

Israeli security officials explain that security cooperation with Egypt is already closer than at any time in memory, and the latest attacks in Sinai will only tighten that intimacy. Rather than a potential crisis point between Cairo and Jerusalem, they represent the basis for further efforts to stabilize the unruly peninsula that not only divides them, but more than ever unites them as well.

Oren Kessler is deputy director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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Egypt Israel