Israel is working closer with Egyptian forces to fight militants in Sinai even as top ally U.S. weighs cutting aid to Egypt over a crackdown against Islamists that has killed almost 1,000, former diplomats and officials said.
Attacks on Egyptian security personnel in Sinai on the border of Israel’s southern tip have intensified in the weeks following Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s July 3 overthrow, with gunmen killing 26 policemen there today alone. Islamist militants also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Israel’s resort city of Eilat.
“Over the last month we’ve seen both a rise in Jihadist elements operating in Sinai and improved cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian militaries to counter this,” Ephraim Kam, a retired Israeli army intelligence colonel and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said in an interview.
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a wedge of mountainous desert bounded on the west by the Suez Canal, has attracted militants in recent years. Their attacks on Israeli and Egyptian targets have had economic as well as military consequences because the area is home to Red Sea resorts and is a transit route for gas.
Israel’s relationship with the Egyptian military “is clearly going very well at the moment, especially as regards Sinai,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo. A crackdown “is as much in Egypt’s interest as ours. Their security forces are also being targeted, and they have to be worried by the possibility that rockets being fired on Israel could the next day be aimed at the Suez Canal,” he said.
Gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked police on a bus next to a checkpoint near the north Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweyid, Mohamed Saeed, the region’s chief of criminal investigations, said by telephone.
An Islamist group said four of its militants were killed this month by an Israeli drone strike in Sinai while preparing to launch a rocket across the border.
Egypt denied that account, which would have been the first Israeli foray into Egyptian territory since the two countries signed their historic peace deal in 1978. It said its air force carried out the attack.
Either version represents an unprecedented operation beyond the limits to military operations in Sinai that Israel and Egypt agreed to in the 1978 Camp David Accords, Kam said.
“The State of Israel respects the sovereignty of Egypt and is aware of the Egyptian army’s increased activity against terror in the Sinai Peninsula,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Aug. 11, adding that “rumor and speculation” wouldn’t be allowed to jeopardize peace between the countries.
Ya’alon confirmed last month that Israel had given Egypt approval to boost its forces in Sinai beyond the one division the peace treaty permits.
Israeli officials are remaining publicly silent about the Egyptian military’s violent crackdown on street protests by supporters of Mursi, in contrast to the denunciations issued by U.S. President Barack Obama. The U.S. canceled its annual joint military operation with Egypt.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not commenting on U.S. policy toward Egypt, former officials such as Zvi Mazel, another ex-ambassador to Egypt, are more vocal.
“Egypt is the most important strategic ally the U.S. has in the Arab world and the military wants to create a pro-Western regime instead of an Islamic dictatorship,” said Mazel, now a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “Obama’s hesitation to support the Egyptian military only encourages the Muslim Brotherhood’s intransigence and I assume we are doing all we can to get this message across in Washington and Europe.”
Israel was concerned by the rise of the Brotherhood when Mursi was elected last year. The group is the parent organization of the militant Palestinian Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip.
The U.S. aid also has a political dimension that’s important to Israel, said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University.
“It’s evident the Israelis don’t want a sudden cut in military aid to Egypt, because this will immediately affect its commitment to the peace treaty,” Nafaa said.
While Israel is not mounting a campaign on Egypt’s behalf, its diplomats say the military is the only responsible actor that can restore order, according to an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The Sinai security situation has already cost both countries in economic terms.
Repeated bombings of the Sinai pipeline after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 led to the cessation of Egyptian gas exports to Israel. That reduced Egyptian exports to Israel to $60 million in 2012 from $179 million the previous year, and led to higher energy costs in Israel.
Israeli concern is also rising over cross-border rocket attacks from Sinai on Eilat. Israel last month stationed an Iron Dome missile defense battery outside the Red Sea resort city, and on Aug. 13 the system recorded it first successful interception of a rocket fired from Sinai.
Israel today issued a travel warning for Sinai, once a popular tourist destination for Israelis.
On Aug. 15, Egypt closed its border crossing with the Gaza Strip, trying to seal off one route for Islamic militants entering Sinai, while disrupting the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian ally Hamas.
“The Egyptian army is definitely showing some new determination and efficiency in taking on the Jihadist groups in Sinai,” said Kam. “The real question is whether they will be able to maintain control in the streets of Cairo and Egypt’s other cities, a job they were never trained for.”