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Israel's air campaign in the Sinai

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Update from AIJAC


Update 02/18 #02


This Update deals with the alleged revelation, reported in the New York Times over the weekend, that Israel has secretly been conducting extensive airstrikes against ISIS-linked Islamic militants in Sinai over the past two years, with the agreement and cooperation of the Egyptian government.

We lead with the original New York Times story itself, written by David Kirkpatrick. The story makes it clear that the 100 plus airstrikes allegedly undertaken by Israel were decisive in helping Egypt get the upper hand against "Wilayet Sinai", the ISIS province in the peninsula. The story also discusses the sensitives that apparently led both Israel and Egypt to go to great lengths to keep the efforts secret, and the wider regional significance of this new evidence of close security cooperation between Jerusalem and a key Arab neighbour. For all the important details, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an attempt to look in more detail at some of the questions the New York Times story left unanswered from Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post. Frantzman explains both that this information is not completely new, and why this story is so sensitive in Egypt - and has still gone almost completely unreported there. He also looks at why Israel sees the Sinai Islamists as a threat, as well as the differences between these strikes and the more publicly known Israeli airstrikes in Syria designed primarily to prevent Hezbollah from getting advanced weapons. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE

Finally, Israeli historian and security analyst Shaul Shai explores in some detail another aspect of Egypt's military efforts in Sinai that affect Israel - the ongoing Egyptian efforts to close down smuggling tunnels from Gaza into Sinai. He notes that Egypt's primary motivation in these efforts is Cairo's belief that the smuggling tunnels are being used by ISIS in Sinai as a passageway for both arms and fighters. He then reviews the various strong efforts the Egyptian army has undertaken to shut down the tunnels - creating a one kilometre buffer zone along the border where no one is allowed to live, flooding the tunnels with both seawater and sewage, and passing new tougher laws - all of which has led to the destruction of 63 tunnels according to the Egyptians. For Shai's detailed factsheet on Egypt's efforts, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, in addition to bulldozing hundreds of homes in Sinai near the Gaza border over the last few years, there are now reports that Egypt is currently bulldozing an even larger number of homes near the El-Arish airport in Sinai to create an additional buffer zone there.

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Article1

Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K.

 

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

New York Times, FEB. 3, 2018

The jihadists in Egypt’s Northern Sinai had killed hundreds of soldiers and police officers, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, briefly seized a major town and begun setting up armed checkpoints to claim territory. In late 2015, they brought down a Russian passenger jet.

Egypt appeared unable to stop them, so Israel, alarmed at the threat just over the border, took action.

For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, frequently more than once a week — and all with the approval of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.


A turning point: In 2015, Islamist militants brought down a Russian passenger jet in Sinai. Soon after, Israel began a wave of airstrikes there. Credit: Maxim Grigoryev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


The remarkable cooperation marks a new stage in the evolution of their singularly fraught relationship. Once enemies in three wars, then antagonists in an uneasy peace, Egypt and Israel are now secret allies in a covert war against a common foe.


An election campaign billboard for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. American officials say he has kept the Israeli airstrikes hidden from all but a limited circle of military and intelligence officers.Credit: Mohamed El-Shahed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For Cairo, the Israeli intervention has helped the Egyptian military regain its footing in its nearly five-year battle against the militants. For Israel, the strikes have bolstered the security of its borders and the stability of its neighbor.

Their collaboration in the North Sinai is the most dramatic evidence yet of a quiet reconfiguration of the politics of the region. Shared enemies like ISIS, Iran and political Islam have quietly brought the leaders of several Arab states into growing alignment with Israel — even as their officials and news media continue to vilify the Jewish state in public.

American officials say Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the militants. But the Israeli role is having some unexpected consequences for the region, including on Middle East peace negotiations, in part by convincing senior Israeli officials that Egypt is now dependent on them even to control its own territory.

Seven current or former British and American officials involved in Middle East policy described the Israeli attacks inside Egypt, all speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Spokesmen for the Israeli and Egyptian militaries declined to comment, and so did a spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry.

Both neighbors have sought to conceal Israel’s role in the airstrikes for fear of a backlash inside Egypt, where government officials and the state-controlled media continue to discuss Israel as a nemesis and pledge fidelity to the Palestinian cause.

The Israeli drones are unmarked, and the Israeli jets and helicopters cover up their markings. Some fly circuitous routes to create the impression that they are based in the Egyptian mainland, according to American officials briefed on their operations.

In Israel, military censors restrict public reports of the airstrikes. It is unclear if any Israeli troops or special forces have set foot inside Egyptian borders, which would increase the risk of exposure.

Mr. Sisi has taken even more care, American officials say, to hide the origin of the strikes from all but a limited circle of military and intelligence officers. The Egyptian government has declared the North Sinai a closed military zone, barring journalists from gathering information there.


Egyptian soldiers and policemen carry the coffins of 25 policemen killed in the North Sinai in 2013. Islamist militants began attacking government targets in Sinai after the military ousted an Islamist government in 2013.CreditKhaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Behind the scenes, Egypt’s top generals have grown steadily closer to their Israeli counterparts since the signing of the Camp David accords 40 years ago, in 1978. Egyptian security forces have helped Israel enforce restrictionson the flow of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory bordering Egypt controlled by the militant group Hamas. And Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies have long shared information about militants on both sides of the border.

Israeli officials were concerned in 2012 when Egypt, after its Arab Spring revolt, elected a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to respect the Camp David agreements. But the Israelis worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological kinship with Hamas and its historic hostility to the Jewish state itself.

A year later, Mr. Sisi, then the defense minister, ousted Mr. Morsi in a military takeover. Israel welcomed the change in government and urged Washington to accept it. That solidified the partnership between the generals on both sides of the border.

The North Sinai, a loosely governed region of mountainous desert between the Suez Canal and the Israeli border, became a refuge for Islamist militantsin the decade before Mr. Sisi took power. The main jihadist organization, Ansar Beit al Maqdis — the Partisans of Jerusalem — had concentrated on attacking Israel, but after Mr. Sisi’s takeover it began leading a wave of deadly assaults against Egyptian security forces.

A few weeks after Mr. Sisi took power, in August 2013, two mysterious explosions killed five suspected militants in a district of the North Sinai not far from the Israeli border. The Associated Press reported that unnamed Egyptian officials had said Israeli drones fired missiles that killed the militants, possibly because of Egyptian warnings of a planned cross-border attack on an Israeli airport. (Israel had closed the airport the previous day.)

Mr. Sisi’s spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, denied it. “There is no truth in form or in substance to the existence of any Israeli attacks inside Egyptian territory,” he said in a statement at the time, promising an investigation. “The claims of coordination between the Egyptian and Israeli sides in this matter are totally lacking in truth and go against sense and logic.”


A funeral convoy carrying the bodies of four Egyptian militants killed in an airstrike in Sinai in 2013. The Egyptian government denied reports that they were killed by missiles fired by an Israeli drone.Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel declined to comment, and the episode was all but forgotten.

Two years later, however, Mr. Sisi was still struggling to defeat the militants, who by then had killed at least several hundred Egyptians soldiers and policemen.

In November 2014, Ansar Beit al Maqdis formally declared itself the Sinai Province branch of the Islamic State. On July 1, 2015, the militants briefly captured control of a North Sinai town, Sheikh Zuwaid, and retreated only after Egyptian jets and helicopters struck the town, state news agencies said. Then, at the end of October, the militants brought down the Russian charterjet, killing all 224 people aboard.

It was around the time of those ominous milestones, in late 2015, that Israel began its wave of airstrikes, the American officials said, which they credit with killing a long roster of militant leaders.

Though equally brutal successors often stepped in to replace them, the militants appeared to adopt less ambitious goals. They no longer dared trying to close roads, set up checkpoints or claim territory. They moved into hitting softer targets like Christians in Sinai, churches in the Nile Valley or other Muslims they view as heretics. In November 2017, the militants killed 311 worshipers at a Sufi mosque in the North Sinai.

By then, American officials say, the Israelis were complaining to Washington that the Egyptians were not holding up their end of the arrangement. Cairo, they said, had failed to follow the airstrikes with coordinated movements of its ground troops.

Although Israeli military censors have prevented the news media there from reporting on the strikes, some news outlets have circumvented the censorship by citing a 2016 Bloomberg News report, in which an unnamed former Israeli official said there had been Israeli drone strikes inside of Egypt.


After the Israeli airstrikes began, Islamist militants retrenched and began attacking softer targets. In November 2017, militants killed 311 worshipers at a Sufi mosque in the North Sinai. Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Zack Gold, a researcher specializing in the North Sinai who has worked in Israel, compared the airstrikes to Israel’s nuclear weapons program — also an open secret.

“The Israeli strikes inside of Egypt are almost at the same level,” he said. “Every time anyone says anything about the nuclear program, they have to jokingly add ‘according to the foreign press.’ Israel’s main strategic interest in Egypt is stability, and they believe that open disclosure would threaten that stability.”

Inside the American government, the strikes are widely known enough that diplomats and intelligence officials have discussed them in closed briefings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers in open committee hearings have alluded approvingly to the surprisingly close Egyptian and Israeli cooperation in the North Sinai.

In a telephone interview, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to discuss specifics of Israel’s military actions in Egypt, but said Israel was not acting “out of goodness to a neighbor.”

“Israel does not want the bad stuff that is happening in the Egyptian Sinai to get into Israel,” he said, adding that the Egyptian effort to hide Israel’s role from its citizens “is not a new phenomenon.”

Some American supporters of Israel complain that, given Egypt’s reliance on the Israeli military, Egyptian officials, diplomats and state-controlled news media should stop publicly denouncing the Jewish state, especially in international forums like the United Nations.

“You speak with Sisi and he talks about security cooperation with Israel, and you speak with Israelis and they talk about security cooperation with Egypt, but then this duplicitous game continues,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. “It is confusing to me.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also pointedly reminded American diplomats of the Israeli military role in Sinai. In February 2016, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry convened a secret summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Mr. Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan and Mr. Netanyahu, according to three American officials involved in the talks or briefed about them.

Mr. Kerry proposed a regional agreement in which Egypt and Jordan would guarantee Israel’s security as part of a deal for a Palestinian state.

Mr. Netanyahu scoffed at the idea.

Israeli’s military was already propping up Egypt’s military, he said, according to the Americans. If Egypt was unable to control the ground within its own borders, Mr. Netanyahu argued, it was hardly in a position to guarantee security for Israel.

Some of the reporting in this article was conducted by David D. Kirkpatrick for the book “Into the Hands of the Soldiers,” to be published by Viking in August. David M. Halbfinger contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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Article 2

What's behind the Egyptian-Israeli cooperation in Sinai?

 

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Jerusalem Post, 02/05/2018

   
A recent New York Times report left many questions unanswered: find them here.
 

An Egyptian military vehicle is seen on the highway in northern Sinai, Egypt, May 25, 2015.. (photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
 
For more than two years “unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 air strikes,” claims a report in Saturday’s New York Times. This report reveals what has been quietly rumored for years. It also provides more evidence for the unprecedented levels of security cooperation that have developed between Egypt and Israel. However, the report also leads to many questions about what is happening in Sinai.

What does the report say?

According to the article Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes in Sinai with the approval of Egyptian authorities. “American officials say Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the militants.” The article asserts that the air strikes are one reason northern Sinai is a closed military zone. The report points out that the ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Sinai have carried out numerous attacks recently, including against Christians and murdering 311 people at a Sufi mosque last year.


Egypt's North Sinai Governorate.

Weren’t there already reports about this?

On February 5 of last year ISIS members were killed in northern Sinai by an alleged drone strike and ISIS media blamed the attack on Israel. In April a drone fired two missiles at a house and a vehicle. The Jerusalem Post reported at the time that “the IDF has not commented on the claim, but Israel is reported to have carried out drone strikes with Egypt’s knowledge.” In October, Zaher Abu Sitta, an ISIS commander, was killed in a drone strike. ISIS’s Amaq news agency alleged that Israel carried it out.

How controversial is this report in Egypt?

Egypt considers any claims that Israel is carrying out strikes in Sinai with extreme sensitivity. Writing for the Daily News Egypt website in February 2017, Taha Sakr claimed that former Egyptian intelligence officials told him that, “Israel will not be able to respond to the rockets fired from Sinai against its territories because of the peace treaty signed in 1979.” Furthermore, “Egypt will not allow such a course of action.” 

Over the years Egyptian media has reported about claims that Israel had plans to pressure Egypt to cede part of Sinai to the Palestinians. These claims were reported in 2010 in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm and seem to make their rounds every year. A June 2017 report by Yoram Schweitzer and Ofir Winter at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) noted that “Egyptian official media has even accused Israel of aiding in the terror against Egypt.”

Major media in Egypt attempted to ignore the story on Sunday; neither did Egyptian officials comment on the report. Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy wrote on Twitter to remind viewers that she had written a column in November arguing that Egypt was “failing to deal with its ISIS insurgency.” Any suggestion that Egypt therefore needs Israel’s “help” to fight the insurgents would be a blow to national pride and the Egyptian army, which is a central state institution.

What are Israel’s concerns about Sinai terror?

Since 2000 there have been a series of terror threats from Sinai or against Israelis in Sinai. In 2004 Taba, on the border near Eilat was bombed, and in 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh was bombed, killing 100 people in total. Terror from Sinai has included Palestinians, local Bedouin, Al-Qaeda and now ISIS-affiliate groups. In February 2014 a bus carrying pilgrims to Israel was bombed in Sinai. In July 2015, ISIS used a Kornet anti-tank missile to target an Egyptian ship. In October 2015, Metrojet Flight 9268 was downed, showing that the terrorists who allegedly bombed it were becoming more sophisticated.

According to Zachary Laub of the Council on Foreign Relations, high quality weapons from Libya and Sudan made their way to the Sinai Peninsula after the 2011 Libyan war.

The presence of more weapons and jihadists in Sinai led to attacks on pipelines, Sufi shrines, and Israel and Egyptian security forces. In August 2011 a cross-border raid killed eight Israelis and five Egyptian soldiers. Egypt began sending more soldiers into Sinai – first 1,500 soldiers in 2011 and then two more infantry battalions in 2013 and 2014, all under agreement with Israel. Armored convoys also moved into Sinai. These were ostensibly in violation of the 1979 peace treaty, but Israel agreed to the deployment. 

In 2013 Egypt launched a massive operation called ‘Desert Storm’ to break the back of the terrorists. Nevertheless the threats continued. In February, April and October rockets were launched from Sinai at Israel from the south in Eilat to the north in the Eshkol region.

The increased threats and sophisticated attacks carried out by the insurgents have encouraged closer cooperation between Israel and Egypt. The security interests of the two states also dovetail on threats emanating from Gaza.

The best of both worlds: Israel’s tech, Egypt’s muscle?

Over the last year Egypt has increased its anti-terror operations in response to threats. In mid-January it launched a curfew of north Sinai as part of its strategy. According to media reports, at least 172 terrorists were killed in Sinai in 2017 while almost 100 Egyptian soldiers and police have lost their lives, as did about 500 civilians. 

Media reports note that Israel looks favorably on Egypt’s stepped-up campaign. The INSS report notes that, if confirmed, reports indicate that “the level of trust between the nations has reached the point where Israel is providing various military, technological and operational intelligence to Egypt and is operating attack UAVs in Sinai with Cairo’s approval.”

This would indicate that to fight the insurgency the Egyptians are doing the ground work while Israel is aiding in intelligence and allegedly using drones. This doesn’t necessarily mean Israeli drones or aircraft would have to violate Egyptian air space to fire missiles. According to Oded Berkowitz, Regional Director of Intelligence and a Senior Analyst at MAX Security Solutions, “Israel always prefers to rely on itself and not on others” and there is “no evidence or indication that Israel provided close air support for Egyptian troops.”

Who is asking who for help?

Much of the story of the Sinai anti-terror war is still unknown. The just-reported number of strikes in Sinai is 100 in the last two years, and Israel’s Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel revealed in August that there were 100 strikes against Syria in five years. However the types of strikes that allegedly took place are different. Reported strikes in Sinai target individuals or several terrorists in a vehicle, while in Syria the reported strikes target whole bases and infrastructure as well as convoys of weapons.

The two battlefields are also very different because the Sinai strikes are alleged to take place in close cooperation with Egypt. That leads to a question of who is asking whom for help. Are the targets only those that pose a threat to Israel or is this an attempt to aid Egypt?

Anna Ahronheim contributed to this analysis.

 
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Article 3

Egypt's War against the Gaza Tunnels

 

Dr. Shaul Shay

|srael Defence, 4/02/2018 

The destruction of smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with the Sinai Peninsula is one of several counter-terrorism initiatives taken by the Egyptian government in recent years. The effective measures taken by President el-Sisi would prove beneficial for Israel as well


Smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt as seen from Rafah, southern Gaza Strip (Photo: AP)

The Egyptian army announced on February 2, 2018, the destruction of a tunnel under the Gaza border. A spokesman said that explosive devices in three warehouses, as well as a tunnel used by "terrorists," were destroyed.

Over the course of 2017, the Egyptian army has destroyed 63 cross-border tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the service added.

The destruction of smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with the Sinai Peninsula is one of several counter-terrorism initiatives taken by the Egyptian government in recent years. Egypt sees the tunnels as a passageway for arms and militants it has been fighting in North Sinai, posing a risk to the country's security.

The network of smuggling tunnels connects Sinai with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement. Hamas operates secret tunnels to facilitate the flow of weapons and militants into and out of Gaza. Hamas, which controls the Strip, effectively licenses the tunnels, providing electricity, taking a tax on smuggled goods, and banning the import of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.

The excavation of smuggling tunnels in the Rafah area began in 1982, subsequent to the division of the Rafah city between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The average smuggling tunnel is approximately 500 meters in length, and 20 to 25 meters deep. The tunnels may be equipped with wood-paneling, electrical infrastructure, communications gear, and rudimentary elevators in vertical shafts, to transport people or the freight of goods. The openings of the tunnels are often located within private Egyptian homes or other buildings, near or next to the border with Egypt.

The Egyptian authorities claim that the tunnels are used by ISIS and other terrorists who target the army and police in Sinai.

The Egyptian security forces developed a comprehensive strategy against the tunnel network:

The "Buffer Zone"

Following the Ansar Beit al Maqdis attacks of October 24, 2014, President el-Sisi has ordered the creation of a "buffer-zone" along the Egyptian border with Gaza in an attempt to quash the illegal tunnel trading between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In January 2015, Egypt began work on doubling the width of the "buffer zone" along the border with the Gaza Strip. The "buffer zone" was initially planned to be 500 meters wide, but is now being expanded by another 500 meters.

The Egyptian army gave over 1,100 families who lived within the "buffer zone" only 48 hours to evacuate their houses. North Sinai’s Governor Abdel Fattah Harhour has stated that every family will receive EGP300 (US$40) in housing allowance for three months, and further compensation will be given for demolished buildings. However, tribal leaders from the region have expressed their dissatisfaction with the sums offered.

Flooding the Tunnels

Filling the tunnels with sewage: Since 2013, the Egyptian military is resorting to a new tactic to shut down the smuggling tunnels: flooding them with sewage. It has since been revealed that this was not a flood of water, but rather human excrement – hundreds, thousands of gallons of raw sewage pumped into the tunnels.

Filling the tunnels with seawater: The Egyptians dug a trench on the Sinai side of the border and then laid pipes parallel to the "buffer-zone" road, known as the Philadelphia Route. Water from the nearby sea was pumped in, creating a canal. The water channel flooded the tunnels, causing them to collapse. The Palestinians are trying to reinforce and waterproof their tunnels with cement and steel bars, hoping they would be saved from collapse if more flooding occurred.

Egypt is creating a large fish farm in the Sinai penin­sula on the border with the Gaza Strip, providing an economic opportunity while also trying to halt smuggling through the network of tunnels between Sinai and the Pal­estinian territory. Tons of sand has been carried away, and huge tubes placed to pump seawater to destroy the smugglers’ tunnels and form the base of the fish farm.

Fighting the tunnels by legal means

President el-Sisi has decided to combat Hamas's smuggling tunnels also through legal means. In April 2015, he signed a new law, according to which anyone who digs a tunnel along Egypt's borders would face life imprisonment. The new law came amid reports that some anti-government jihadists from Sinai had received medical treatment in hospitals inside the Gaza Strip. The reports confirmed fears of Egyptian government officials that the jihadists in Sinai are working together with Hamas to undermine security and stability in Egypt.

Summary

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's uncompromising war on terrorism, especially along the border with the Gaza Strip, seems to be bearing fruit. Egypt says the closing down of the tunnels is part of a crackdown against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula and their supporters in the Palestinian territory of Gaza Strip. As a result of this war, which began in 2013, shortly after el-Sisi came to power, with the destruction of hundreds of smuggling tunnels along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, Hamas and other armed groups are now more isolated than ever.

President el-Sisi has shown real determination in his war to drain the swamps of terrorists. The tough measures he has taken along the border with the Gaza Strip have proven to be effective.

The destruction of these tunnels will be a major counter-terrorism move, reducing the motivation and capability of Hamas to initiate new offensive from Gaza Strip against Israel. Reliance on the tunnels seems to have progressively declined, and Hamas has also been unable to acquire more weapons and ammunition, owing to the ongoing Egyptian campaign to eliminate the tunnels.

Colonel (res.) Dr Shaul Shay is the director of research of the Institute for Policy and Strategy and a senior research fellow of the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzeliya (IDC), Israel. Previously, he served 27 years in the IDF as a paratrooper officer and in the Military Intelligence.

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