THE GAZA ATTACKS ON ISRAEL: A COMMENT
"At least seven of the attackers – who Israel says belong to the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees – were killed by Israeli and Egyptian forces. Since Thursday evening, the Israeli air force has also struck a series of targets in the Gaza Strip, killing seven Palestinians, including the PRC commander. According to Gaza-based observers, the committees have more than 1,000 gunmen in their ranks, and are considered one of the most active, and aggressive, militant groups in the Gaza Strip. They have claimed responsibility for a series of high-profile attacks on Israeli targets in recent years, including the 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit , the Israeli soldier currently held in Gaza. The PRC operates largely independently from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the strip. There has been no claim of responsibility for the Eilat attacks from any group. Hamas leaders, however, have said the group’s fighters had nothing to do with the assault.
The first Israeli target hit on Thursday was a bus driving from the city of Beersheva to Eilat. It was sprayed with gunfire close to the Egyptian border by a group of men who reportedly disguised themselves as soldiers. It was followed by a second shooting attack on another bus. The third incident occurred when an Israeli military vehicle rushing to the scene was hit by a roadside bomb. This was followed by mortar fire, apparently from the Egyptian side of the border, and the launching of at least one anti-tank missile on an Israeli vehicle....
Israeli officials have long been concerned about the country’s southern frontier, which runs for 255km through unpopulated desert and is therefore difficult to monitor and even harder to defend. The Sinai is widely considered the most lawless region in Egypt, and has long functioned as a base for gangs of smugglers and for militant Islamist groups. The assault came just days after the Egyptian army and police launched a crackdown in the peninsula, aimed at weeding out Islamic militants after a rise in attacks against police stations and security check points since the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in February.
In the past six months, suspected Islamist militants in the Sinai have blown up a pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel five times. More than a hundred militants, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, attacked a police station in al-Arish, the main city in northern Sinai at the end of July. Six people, including an army officer and two policemen, were killed in the siege of the station, which involved a nine-hour gun battle. Dubbed “Operation Eagle”, the continuing crackdown in the Sinai is reported to have led to the discovery of at least three stores containing large amounts of explosives as well as automatic weapons and grenades. The security services said they arrested four people on Tuesday as they prepared to blow up the gas line again.
More than a dozen others were arrested on Monday and at least one suspected militant was killed during a gun battle with the security services. The Israeli government decided last year to build a new security fence along the border with Egypt, saying it was necessary to stop the flow of illegal migrants into the country and to undermine the smuggling of arms and other goods. The fence, which was estimated to cost at least Shk1bn ($280m), has not yet been completed".
Tobias Buck & Heba Saleh, "Israel and Gaza Militants trade attacks." The Financial Times.19 August 2011, in www.ft.com.
"In light of recent unrest in the Arab world and the new political and security reality in Egypt, these latest attacks in Israel potentially represent a new kind of threat — one posed by transnational jihadists who have long wanted to undermine Egypt without operational success. It is quite possible that al Qaeda is trying to exploit the post-Mubarak political environment to mobilize its Sinai- and Gaza-based assets in order to create an Egyptian-Israeli crisis that can (potentially) undermine Cairo’s stability....
Egypt’s rolling back of the police state and subsequent political reforms have made it difficult to maintain domestic security and keep militants under control. Indeed, militants are already taking advantage of the political opening. They have stepped up their operations, as evidenced by attacks against energy infrastructure and other targets in the Sinai Peninsula. The new era of Egyptian multiparty politics has also allowed a variety of Islamist actors to emerge as legitimate political entities. At the same time, Egyptian national sentiment is emerging as a major factor in the foreign policymaking process. This change alone constitutes a threat to Israel’s national security, though it is a more of a long-term issue.
The rise of different types of Islamist actors (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Sufists, among others) as legitimate political entities who pursue constitutional means to come to power makes it difficult for jihadists to directly threaten the stability of the Egyptian regime. With even Salafists and former jihadist groups such as Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al-Jihad embracing the political mainstream, the jihadists will have a hard time gaining support for an armed insurrection against the Egyptian state. Realizing that they are not able to directly confront the Egyptian state (despite the Arab unrest), the jihadists are trying to indirectly undermine the regime by exploiting the Israeli-Gaza situation and the renewed militancy in the Sinai. Even before today’s attacks, the Israelis responded to increasing attacks in the Sinai by allowing Cairo to deploy an additional 1,000 troops to the peninsula. That concession indicated that Israel is likely skeptical of the Egyptian military’s ability to effectively deal with this problem, considering current political and security circumstances. Cairo is under a lot of stress domestically and regionally. Egypt is in the early stages of trying to manage political and militant opposition in a tense political climate and it is unable to maintain internal security as effectively as it once did.
Israel, therefore, will likely see today’s attacks as a new kind of threat. The Israeli leadership realizes that the problem is no longer strictly confined to Gaza but has now spread to Egypt itself. However, Israel doesn’t have any good way to control the situation unfolding within the borders of its Arab neighbor. That said, Israeli officials have already begun pointing fingers at the deteriorating security situation in Egypt, a response which likely going to cause tensions between the two countries. For decades, the al Qaeda leader has longed to be capable of undermining the Egyptian state, and now the Arab unrest provides an opportunity (albeit not without challenges of its own). Al-Zawahiri’s status as al Qaeda chief after the death of Osama bin Laden boosts the viability of this endeavor. In this new role, he is more or less free to steer the movement toward his preferred direction. His ascension to the top of the jihadist hierarchy also signals a rise of Egyptians (who have long held a disproportionate amount of influence) within the global jihadist network. The result is that al Qaeda can be expected to focus heavily on the Egyptian-Gaza-Israeli fault line. This fixation will not only complicate matters for Israel and its efforts to deal with the Gaza Strip, it could also begin to unravel the Egyptian-Israeli relationship that has existed since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords".
"Attacks in Egypt and new militant opportunities in Egypt." Stratfor: Global intelligence.19 August 2011, in www.stratfor.com.
It would be kinderspiel to blame the Israeli government for 'overreacting' to the latest Gaza incursions. Indeed, that was at first my own initial reaction. However, per contra, as both the Financial Times and the American intelligence firm, Stratfor clearly agree, the incursion into Israeli territory is part of a fundamental weakening of Egyptian security in the Sinai Peninsula in the past six months with the downfall of the Mubarak regime 1. With an end-result that we now have a situation where Islamist terrorist groups are apparently infiltrating themselves into the Sinai with a view of launching attacks upon both Israeli and Egyptian targets. Whether the security lapses on the Egyptian side are merely a case of a temporarily breakdown which shall in due course be righted or (as per Stratfor) perhaps a semi-deliberate policy by the interim military regime to allow Islamist elements some 'space' due to a fear of the political unpopularity of launching a needed & necessary crackdown, is unknowable at this time. Although the manner in which Egypt has reacted to the Israeli response does not offer any real optimism on that score 2. Au fond security in the Sinai Peninsula is Egypt's responsibility. Just as security in the Gaza Strip is Hamas' responsibility. If either party fails to abide by their obligations under international law, then both should pay the forfeit as it were. In the case of Egypt, one would hope that the Americans and the other, responsible members of the Quartet powers: the European Union and the United Nations would apply the requisite amount of both diplomatic & and economic pressure on Cairo to properly enforce security in the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula. In the case of the Hamas regime in Gaza Strip, there the matter presents us with a greater dilemma. While under international law, Tel Aviv is allowed to engage in hot pursuit of those terrorists who have attacked its territory or indeed launched rocket attacks on the same (`a la those of yesterday), unfortunately Israel's leaders have in the past (id est, 'Operation Cast Lead') chosen to employ the sledge hammer approach, where something less heavy-handed would do. Given everything else going on in the Near and Middle East, it would be a political disaster of the first rank, if there was a repetition of the Israeli military response of January 2009. Which left much of the Gaza Strip in ruins. Based upon the scale of Israel's retaliation so far, one can only hope that the Netanyahu Cabinet will continue to exercise moderation in its reaction to these latest and senseless attacks. Attacks which I for one, am convinced have some connection with elements who are following orders from the Assad regime in Damascus or even perhaps the regime in Persia. Both powers would be overjoyed for Israel to be provoked into another 'Operation Cast Lead' and thus refocus attention in the Near and Middle East from the uprising in Syria to the Israel-Palestinian dispute 3. Insofar as it is possible, it is quite imperative for Israel to be prevented from falling into this trap. One can only hope that the Saudis can be prevailed upon to exercise necessary caution and to indeed engage in the appropriate pourparlers with Hamas regime. Hopefully, before matters spiral out of control entirely. The Americans, one would hope would do the same with Israel, but given the less than cordial relations between the current American government and the Netanyahu Cabinet (id est, they cordially despise each other), one is not entirely certain if anything positive would result from any official or un-official demarches on the subject 4. Like most diplomacy in the region at the moment, it would be very much a case of faute de mieux.
1. For a confirmation of the analyses of both the Financial Times and Startfor, see: "Attacks in Israel: terror down South." The Economist. 18 August 2011, in www.economist.com. For the Egyptian response to the Israeli military reprisal, see: Hiba Afify & Isabel Kerschner, "A long Peace is threatened in Israel military attack." The New York Times 19 August 2011, in www.nytimes.com.
2. On the subsequent Israeli response and in turn the rocket attacks on Israel, originating from the Gaza Strip, see: Ansel Pfeffer, "30 Rockets strike Israel day after coordinated Terror attacks kill 8." & Avi Issacharoff & Ansel Pfeffer,"Israel Air Force Bombs Gaza following deadly terror attack, killing four PRC activists." Haaretz 19 August 2011, in www.haaretz.com.
3. Hezbollah, the creature of both Damascus and Persia, came out with a statement hailing the attacks on Israel, is if nothing else an indication of where both powers interest in the matter lies. Obviously, sans hard evidence, my own surmise that the initial attack was co-ordinated or planned by the two powers in question is purely speculative. For Hezbollah's statement see: "Hezbollah hails operation in Israel as heroic." Daily Star. 20 August 2011, in www.dailystar.com.
4. For a view of the current American administration that would appear close to that held by the Netanyahu Cabinet, see: Elliott Abrams, "0 for 2: Obama's Failed Middle East Policy." The Council on Foreign Relations.13 July 2011, in www.cfr.org.