The latest terrorist attack on the Israel-Egypt border that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers is shaping up to be the first real test of Israel-Egypt relations under the leadership of newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
On Sunday night 35 masked gunmen stormed an Egyptian military base killing 16 soldiers, and then seized two vehicles and crossed into Israeli territory.
A spokeswoman for the Israel’s Defence Forces (IDF), said one of the men drove a truck, taken from the military outpost and packed with a half ton of explosives, about a mile to the Israeli border fence, which he blew up along with himself and the vehicle. The armoured car, also stolen, then entered Israel, where it was stopped by three Israeli airstrikes that killed six or seven men – most of them carrying explosives on their bodies – as they tried to flee. (For a detailed look at the chronological events of the attack see here, and for a video of the Israeli airstrike see here).
The attack was clearly aimed at Egyptian and Israeli targets, and was fortunately averted in Israel.
The IDF said the attackers were part of a global jihad terrorist infrastructure operating inside the Sinai that was made up mostly of local Bedouin. The attack was similar to the cross-border attack that took place last August in which eight Israelis were killed. The attackers then were also Bedouin, also wore explosive belts and also carried out a sophisticated attack.
The Sinai Peninsula has become a hotbed for terrorism and has been provoking Israel-Egypt relations. While the Sinai Peninsula is meant to remain demilitarised under the 1979 peace agreement, Israel has permitted the Egyptians to deploy around seven battalions in the Sinai.
Reportedly Egyptian officials have claimed that the terrorists were aided by Palestinians in Gaza, which could undermine ties between Egypt and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
In response, Hamas issued statements condemning the attacks and promising help in chasing down the attackers. The leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh also accused Israel of ‘responsibility’ for the attack. Haniyeh told the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television channel on Monday:
“Israel is responsible, one way or another, for this attack to embarrass Egypt’s leadership and create new problems at the border, in order to ruin efforts to end the [Israeli] siege of the Gaza Strip”.
However despite Hamas’ words, Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip ‘indefinitely’.
Implications for Israel-Egypt relations
Since the fall of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s relations with Israel, never warm, have become even more frigid. This coldness was on display last week, when Egypt denied that President Morsi sent a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres (see previous blog post).
However, the latest attack could be a ‘wake up call’ for Morsi to realise that mutual cooperation with Israel is in Egypt’s interest, particularly in relation to Sinai, where the growing terrorism in Sinai threatens both Egypt and Israel.
This was noted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said, “I think it is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping their border quiet”. However, he also added, “when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself.”
Similarly, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said of Morsi, “Now it is obvious also to him that there is a real convergence of interests here, and this may get us closer to him.”
Stronger cooperation could lead to Israel making concessions to amend the peace treaty with Egypt to allow a stronger Egyptian military presence. However, Israeli officials and analysts note that an annex to the treaty signed in 1979 was modified two years ago to allow seven additional Egyptian battalions into Sinai and Egypt has yet to fill that quota. Retired Maj. General Dan Harel commented:
“The Egyptians will have to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they want to do… For a long time they pushed it under the rug. There’s a hill under the rug today.”
There were some early signs of cooperation. The New York Times reported:
“An Israeli brigadier general and his Egyptian counterpart met near the border to discuss the investigation. Israel handed over to Egypt the armored car and the bodies of those killed as they tried to enter through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condolence.”
A test for Morsi
Despite these ‘early signs’ the relationship faces a new challenge with the Muslim Brotherhood posting a statement on its website on Monday night stating that the attack “could be attributed to the Mossad, which has been seeking to abort the Egyptian revolution, especially as it had several days ago instructed Israeli citizens who were in Sinai to leave immediately.”
The statement also said that the incident “aims to add problems at the border to those already plaguing the country internally following the collapse of a corrupt system, and attempts to claim the failure of the new Egyptian government that was formed only three days ago.”
The statement concluded, “The incident is also an attempt to disrupt the president’s reform project and drive a wedge between the Egyptian administration and its people, and the Palestinian government and the people of Gaza”.
Israel dismissed allegations of involvement in the attack. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said:
“Even the person who says this when he looks at himself in the mirror does not believe the nonsense he is uttering.”
Meanwhile, these accusations have led to dozens of demonstrators in front of the residence of the Israeli ambassador in Cairo on Monday night, demanding his expulsion. They chanted “leave, leave”, the state newspaper al-Ahram reported.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s false accusations are another test for Morsi. This was noted by Robert Satloff and Eric Trager of the Washington Institute. They write that the US should emphasise two points to Egypt’s rulers:
“First, it should inform President Muhammad Morsi that his response to this crisis will provide the first real evidence of his oft-stated commitment to foreign diplomats that he will respect Egypt’s international agreements, that is, maintain the peace treaty with Israel. Unlike last week’s flap over whether or not Morsi had responded to a letter from Israeli president Shimon Peres, yesterday’s Sinai attack carries severe security ramifications for regional peace.
So far, Morsi has sought to cover his bets. On the one hand, he issued a strong declaration condemning the attack, vowed to catch and punish the culprits, and traveled to al-Arish with Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi to assess the situation himself. On the other hand, he also permitted his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues to issue a venomous statement blaming Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, for the attack and warning Egyptians to beware of those trying to sabotage the revolution.
This is the moment for private but firm communication to Morsi that a responsible leader, one who wants international support to bolster his flagging economy, cannot play childish games that pander to the worst instincts of Egyptian public opinion. Indeed, any serious effort to prevent terrorist infiltration in Sinai requires coordination with Israel, which — even if kept in the shadows — cannot proceed in an environment of public vilification.
Second, U.S. policymakers should reaffirm to the Egyptian military that Washington views securing Sinai as an essential aspect of Egyptian-Israeli peace, and that continued provision of substantial military aid is contingent on good-faith efforts to invest adequate personnel and resources to do the job…”
This latest terrorist attack will be a significant test in Egypt-Israel relations, and hopefully Morsi will recognise the benefits, even necessity, of mutual cooperation with Israel. But this would require Morsi standing up to the Muslim Brotherhood’s vilification of Israel and speaking out in support of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. At this stage, this appears unlikely.