Analysis, by Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association
The series of coordinated attacks carried out by an ISIS-affiliate terror group against Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai pose a new challenge to the Israeli army.
Egypt’s military said that at least 70 terrorists carried out Wednesday’s simultaneous attacks, which targeted numerous army checkpoints in the part of the Sinai bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip.
64 soldiers, 90 jihadists and four civilians were killed, according to Egyptian officials. It was the biggest battle in the Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. At least 55 soldiers were wounded, they said.
The coordinated Sinai assault focused on the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints. The jihadists reportedly also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armoured vehicles.
The group which carried out the attacks, called ‘Sinai Province’, is thought to be a manifestation of the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group, which last year pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Since Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi rise to power, the regime in Cairo has been the primary target for Ansar. However, the group has also made clear that it is committed to attacking Israel. 18 months ago, two rockets were fired by the group on Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city.
The assault came a day after President al-Sissi pledged to step up the battle against Islamic jihadists and two days after Egypt’s chief prosecutor was assassinated in Cairo.
Egyptian officials and pro-government media have blamed a series of recent attacks on ousted president Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially branded a terrorist group.
But although the terror attacks launched in the Sinai by the Islamic State (ISIS) terror organization in the Sinai Peninsula was aimed at undermining President Sisi’s military-secular rule, it seems also that the al-Sisi is not the only one who should be concerned, so should Israel.
“In the short run, we have to prepare for the possibility that the attack will develop into an offensive towards the Israeli border,” writes Israeli journalist Ron Ben Yishai, a military specialist, in Ynet news.
“The jihadists could drive them towards the border terminals with Israel and the border fence in order to break through them with the heavy weight of the tanks and armoured personnel carriers.”
Following the attacks in the Sinai, the Israeli army quickly shut off the crossings with Egypt and alerted all the communities along the border, especially in its north-western, near Rafah. The IDF announced the temporary closing of Route 12, which runs close to the Israel-Egypt border as a precautionary measure.
The IDF has also reinforced the presence of armored vehicles on the ground and unmanned aircraft monitoring what is happening near the border. “The IDF is likely on the alert with helicopters and fighter jets, which Israel will not hesitate to use in case of an attempt to infiltrate its territory,” writes Ben Yishai.
The battles taking place between the Egyptian army and ISIS fighters could also develop into rocket and mortar fire towards Israel, and the Central Command is preparing for that too.
ISIS will probably try to create provocations on the border with Israel in a bid to cause a friction between the IDF and the Egyptian army and affect the good relationship between Egypt and Israel.
Another “new” element of the situation on the ground is the fact that Hamas, the Islamist group governing Gaza, is providing support to the ISIS-affiliate in the Sinai.
According to Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of Israeli government activities in the territories, told Al Jazeera that Israel possesses “clear information that Hamas is supporting the Sinai Province group, which belongs to ISIS” and was responsible for the Sinai attacks.
More specifically, Mordechai explained that Hamas had provided weapons and logistical support, saying, “We have examples of Hamas commanders actively taking part in this assistance.” He added that “Wael Faraj, a battalion commander in Hamas’s armed wing, smuggled wounded [fighters] from Sinai to the Gaza Strip.”
Egypt has long accused Hamas of aiding attacks in Sinai, especially as Hamas is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was deposed by President al-Sisi in 2013.
‘Sinai Province’ is also said to be aiding Hamas in efforts to smuggle weapons into Gaza as part of the Palestinian group’s rearmament program.
This alliance, defense sources say, is behind the latest acrimony between Cairo and the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
The Hamas-IS alliance is not a natural one. Within Gaza, Hamas has been engaged in a low-level shooting war with local IS-affiliated jihadist groups over their firing of rockets into Israel without the Hamas’s government’s approval.
The bitterness between the government of President al-Sisi and Hamas precedes the current violence. Hamas is an outgrowth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has been locked in a struggle with the country’s military over control of post-Mubarak Egypt. In 2013, Sisi deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. Hamas backed Morsi in that struggle.
The alliance with Sinai Province appears to be controversial within Hamas as well. It is reportedly being carried out by the group’s military wing, but is opposed by Hamas political leaders, including the Qatar-based Khaled Meshal and Gaza-based Ismail Haniyeh.
In recent weeks, Egypt has eased its blockade of the Hamas-ruled Strip, even opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai for brief periods. But after this week’s attacks, Cairo appears to be reversing that policy.