At least eight people died and dozens were left wounded after a terrorist attack in Israel on Thursday. Israeli officials claim the deadly strike was staged from Egyptian territory.
The sophisticated, three-stage assault, involving as many as 20 Islamist terrorists, took place near Eilat on Route 12, which runs close to Egypt’s Sinai border for “several dozen kilometres.” Eilat is a southern Israeli port city on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba.
The Israelis identified “terror cells affiliated with the Palestinian Resistance Committees” in Gaza as the ones responsible for the carnage and staged a retaliatory air strike the same day that killed the cells’ leaders. Significantly and ominously for the Israelis, though, the attack showed terrorists were able to freely cross the border from Gaza into Egypt and launch their strike from Egyptian soil. This represents the opening of a new front against the Jewish state.
“It is clear that the terrorists came from Gaza and it is clear that they move freely from Gaza to the Sinai,” said an Israeli defense official.
According to an Israeli newspaper report, the terrorists first fired at a bus, injuring several people; but they only claimed their first victim when a terrorist exploded his suicide vest, killing the driver of a second bus that, fortunately, was empty. The next vehicle attacked was a car, in which four passengers were killed, while bombs were detonated near an Israeli patrol.
The well-armed attackers also fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli military helicopter and an anti-tank missile at another vehicle. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) responded with its usual rapidity and killed seven terrorists, while the Egyptian army reported shooting two more on their side of the border.
“The attacks demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Before Thursday’s attack, Israel was under no illusion about the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula after the uprising in Egypt last January that led to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. An Israeli commander for the southern region said his forces had been “on high alert for terrorist attacks coming from Sinai to Israel.”
The Israelis have also been constructing a security fence along the 200-kilometre Egyptian-Israel border that is due to be finished at the end of 2012. Israel has so far managed to complete 45 kilometres of the fence at a rate of 700 metres a day. The original completion date was 2013, but it was moved up, which, as Thursday’s terrorist attack indicates, was a good decision. Following Thursday’s strike, Israeli security officials were reported to be looking for more workers in order to shorten the completion date even further.
The fact that Islamic terrorists can move freely between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip is not surprising. Although the interim Egyptian government opened the Rafah crossing to Gaza last May to great fanfare, it allows only 550 people to cross daily. And that is just the problem. Only people are allowed to cross and no commercial goods. This lack of a suitable route for commerce has left the transportation of merchandise between Egypt and Gaza in the hands of smugglers, mostly Bedouin, who control the tunnels running under the border.
“The crossing is for travelers only, not for goods,” said one tunnel owner. “Opening or closing it doesn’t affect the tunnels.”
The three contraband items smuggled most, the tunnel owner says, are cars stolen in Egypt and Libya, construction materials and people. So if whole cars can be smuggled through tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, then it would not be difficult for a heavily-armed terrorist team of twenty to get into Egypt. Especially when, according to an Egyptian newspaper report, there are “1,000-1,500 tunnel operations” along the 12.6 kilometre Egyptian-Palestinian border.
And there is no police to stop them, although they previously had never made much of an effort to do so. After the January 25 uprising, the Egyptian police were chased by the Bedouin population out of North Sinai towns like Rafah becasue of their corruption and brutality. The economically marginalized Bedouins, who compose most of the Sinai Peninsula’s population, are discriminated against by the central government and have often clashed violently with police. Last year “thousands of demonstrators” attacked government buildings in North Sinai, while in November, 2008, “Bedouins besieged police stations along the border with Israel,” taking officers hostage to protest police killings of Bedouins.
This sense of grievance against Cairo has also led some Bedouins in Sinai to engage in anti-state terrorism as members of an Islamist group. From 2004 to 2006, terrorist attacks on tourist resorts in the Sinai Peninsula that involved suicide bombers caused the deaths of more than 100 people. A Sinai-based group calling itself “Unification and Holy War,” headed by a man of Palestinian origin who grew up in Sinai, was believed responsible. The group had the same name as that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist organization in Iraq in 2004 before he joined bin Laden. After that, it was known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Besides contributing to the breakdown in security, the January 25 uprising in Egypt gave a boost to the Islamist cause in Sinai and Gaza in another important way. Thousands of radical Muslim prisoners of the Mubarak regime escaped, were freed when their prisons were attacked by comrades or simply walked away when the guards fled.
The security vacuum that now exists in Sinai is also exhibited by the five terrorist attacks since February on the natural gas pipeline that supplies Israel with 40 per cent of its natural gas, causing halts in exports. Islamists in Egypt have always been against giving Israel any of its natural resources, while others resent the fact the Jewish state is paying below market price for the gas.
The last attack against the pipeline in late July also coincided with an attack by several dozen men, reportedly Palestinians carrying green flags bearing Islamic slogans, against a North Sinai police station, in which six people died. A group calling itself “the al-Qaeda Network in Sinai Peninsula” took responsibility for both attacks and is demanding Sinai be turned into an Islamic state and the Egyptian army break the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. This group may also have been responsible for damaging a statue in a Sinai town of Anwar Sadat, the signer of the hated treaty.
For its part, the Egyptian government is denying the terrorists who carried out Thursday’s strike in Israel launched their attack from Egyptian soil. They claim the attackers infiltrated Israeli territory prior to launching their assault. The South Sinai governor, Khaled Fouda, said “there was no gunfire from the Egyptian side,” while the North Sinai governor, probably not wishing to be outdone, demanded proof.
“How does Israel know they came from Sinai? What is Israel’s evidence?” hesaid, sounding like Pakistanis officials who always claimed they needed evidence that Osama bin Laden was on their territory before they could take action.
Ironically, the Egypt army was in the middle of a big security operation in Sinai to restore a semblance of law and order when Thursday’s attack occurred. The army intends to reinstall the police in towns where they had been chased out and hunt down Islamist groups including those in the “safe haven” of central Sinai’s rugged mountains. The Egyptians had received prior permission from Israel to increase its troop strength for the operation, since the number of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai is restricted by the 1979 treaty that returned the peninsula to Egypt.
While Islamist terrorist groups are always looking for a way to attack Israel directly, one possible reason for Thursday’s terrorist attack has to do with the arrival of high-ranking Hamas members in Egypt. One of the things they are expected to discuss in Cairo is the exchange of Palestinian-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in 2006, for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. On an Israeli radio show, an Israeli minister reportedly said there was “a grain of truth” to this. The fact the Israelis believe the likely purpose of Thursday’s attack was to capture an Israeli and transport the prisoner to Gaza indicates there may be a connection with what is transpiring in Cairo.
The Israelis are already demonstrating with the construction of a security wall they know how to prevent any more terrorist attacks from Egypt. The barrier Israel built in the West Bank has proved its value in lives saved many times over. And with this September’s elections in Egypt, the security situation is bound to get worse as the Islamists will make a strong showing if not win outright. So time is of the essence and the sooner – and higher – Israel builds its newest fence, the better.