August 13, 2013
An alleged Israeli drone strike against terrorists on Egyptian territory Friday could be a sign of a new level of cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.
Israel’s alleged blowing up of a team of terrorists in Egypt with a missile fired from a drone indicates a new level of cooperation between the two countries’ militaries since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government.
Middle East analysts warn that the alliance against terror could destabilize Egypt’s new interim government if it works too closely with the Jewish state, which is demonized by many Egyptians and Arab nations.
“Israel understands the sensitivity of the issue for the new government in Egypt,” says Avi Melamed, a security consultant in the Middle East and former Israeli intelligence official.
The strike near the town of Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border with Israel killed five terrorists linked to al-Qaeda who were preparing to launch a missile at Israel, according to several media reports including one by the Associated Press.
The reports cited unnamed Egyptian military sources as saying they assisted in the strike. An official statement from the Egyptian military denied the reports and said it launched the attack using an Apache helicopter. Egypt’s helicopters killed an additional 12 al-Qaeda terrorists on Saturday, it said.
Israel has made no public comment on the attack other than to say it respects Egypt’s sovereignty in Sinai. In another incident involving the Sinai on Tuesday, the Israeli military shot down a rocket fired at a Red Sea resort town near the desert region, the army said. An al-Qaeda-linked group based in the Sinai, Ansar Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for launching the rocket in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
The Sinai is a sparsely inhabited desert in northeastern Egypt that runs up to the southern border of Israel and Gaza. Israel has warned that the area is becoming a no man’s land of arms traffickers and militants who are moving weapons from there to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Gaza and to other countries.
Egypt’s military has increased its operations in the Sinai to crack down on the militancy. But doing so with Israel will be used as ammunition by the political adversaries of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed Egypt’s Islamist president last month, said Itzik Segev, a retired Israeli brigadier general who managed security in the Sinai from 1971 to 1976.
Ongoing intelligence sharing and strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt has not reached the point where Israelis are operating on Egyptian soil directly, he said. Yet any collaboration is “a sensitive point,” said Segev, who has developed close ties with Egyptian generals since the countries signed a peace treaty in 1979.
Israeli-Egyptian cooperation could provide fodder to Islamists angry that their president was deposed, Segev said.
At Rabaa Square on Monday, where Muslim Brotherhood protesters continued a sit-in demanding Morsi be reinstated, the crowd’s chant made clear how they felt about al-Sisi’s relations with Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Sissi? What Sissi? Tel Aviv and Netanyahu control him,” they chanted, according to blogger Nervana Mahmoud.
Islamists protesting Morsi’s ouster on Monday called for a million-man march “against the coup and Zionism,” according to Ahram Online, a website for one of Egypt’s state-owned newspapers. And the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, which supports Morsi, called the alleged Egyptian-Israeli collaboration near Rafah a “traitorous operation,” Ahram Online reported.
Generals set a hard line on Sinai
Egypt’s generals have been trying for months to show Washington that their cooperation with Israel has reached unprecedented levels, and the drone strike story fits into that narrative, said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Allowing Israelis to take action on Egyptian soil, however, is far different from mere coordination on intelligence issues, and could prove far more damaging to Egypt’s military rulers, said Cook, who wrote The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
Despite 34 years of peace, Israel remains very unpopular in Egypt and many Egyptians feel the peace treaty failed to fulfill expectation, Cook said.
“This is something opponents of the military could use against them,” he said.
Melamed said the two countries have cooperated daily in various ways in the past, on tactical and strategic issues related to the Sinai peninsula and regional security. When Israel identified threats developing on the Israeli-Egyptian border last year, the two sides cooperated “on the ground level to make sure there was no misunderstanding” while Egypt sent troops and equipment to deal with the problem, Melamed said.
Israel wants to maintain these ties, he said.
Israel onces controlled the Sinai after its capture of the region in the 1967 war against Arab nations. The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty established communication channels between the two countries and set caps on Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai. The desert area remained quiet, inhabited largely by Bedouin tribesmen, until recent years.
Acts of militancy against Israel and Egypt’s military increased following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator for 30 years and a former military officer, and led to coordination of responses between the two countries.
• In February 2011, terrorists again bombed a natural gas pipeline that supplies Egyptian petroleum to Israel and Jordan. Egypt’s military sought Israel’s consent before sending tanks and soldiers to establish security.
• In August 2011, terrorists crossed into Israel from Sinai, killed eight Israelis and fled back to Egypt. Israeli forces pursued them and mistakenly shot at Egyptian soldiers, killing six of them.
• In August 2012, terrorists attacked an Egyptian military base in Gaza and killed 16 soldiers. They stole two armored personnel carriers and tried to cross into Israel but were stopped and killed. Israel said it was prepared for that attack because of intelligence sharing between the two nations, though Egyptian officials did not heed the warnings.
• In November 2012, after Egypt elected now-ousted President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s military helped Israel enforce a blockade on the Gaza Strip while Israel send its aircraft and helicopter gunships against Palestinian rocket launchers in the Palestinian territory.
With Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, in control of Egypt’s government, however, the military took little action against the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza that supplied Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Morsi’s ouster last month, Egyptian military has poured men and weapons into north Sinai, flooding or destroying hundreds of Hamas smuggling tunnels on the Egypt-Gaza border and launching military operations against suspected radicals in other parts of the territory.
H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based Middle East fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the alleged Egyptian role in the Israeli drone strike in El Arish has not hurt al-Sissi because it has been cast by the Egyptian military and state press as an Egyptian helicopter strike.
“None of this will be viewed as being unpatriotic,” Hellyer said. “Sissi is well and truly entrenched on all levels, with the state, the military and with public opinion.”
Source: USA Today
Photo: AFP/Getty Images