Israeli military preparedness follows a depressing pattern. The IDF does not change its assessments of the strategic environment until Israeli blood runs in the streets.
In Judea and Samaria, from 1994 through 2000, the army closed its eyes to the Palestinian security forces’ open, warm and mutually supportive ties to terror groups.
The military only began to reconsider its assessment of the US- and European-trained and Israeli-armed Palestinian forces after Border Police Cpl. Mahdat Youssef bled to death at Joseph’s Tomb in October 2000. Youssef died because the Palestinian security chiefs on whom Israel had relied for cooperation refused to coordinate the evacuation of the wounded policeman.
Youssef was wounded when a Palestinian mob, supported by Palestinian security forces, attacked the sacred Jewish shrine. They shot at worshipers and the IDF soldiers who were stationed at Joseph’s Tomb in accordance with the agreements Israel has signed with the Palestinians.
In Lebanon, the IDF only reconsidered its policy of ignoring Hezbollah’s massive arms build-up in the south after the Shi’ite group launched its war against Israel in July 2006.
In Gaza, the IDF only reconsidered its willingness to allow Hamas to massively arm itself with missiles and rockets after the terror group running the Strip massively escalated the scale of its missile war against Israel in December 2008.
It is to be hoped that Thursday’s sophisticated, deadly, multi-pronged, combined arms assault by as yet unidentified enemy forces along the border with Egypt will suffice to force the IDF to alter its view of Egypt.
By Thursday afternoon, seven Israelis had been killed and 26 had been wounded by unidentified attackers who entered Israel from Egyptian-ruled Sinai and staged a four-pronged attack. The attack included two assaults on civilian passenger buses and private cars. The assailants used automatic rifles in the first attack, and rifles as well as either anti-tank missiles or rocket-propelled grenades in the second attack.
The assault also involved the use of missiles and roadside bombs against an IDF border patrol, and open combat between the attackers and police SWAT teams.
There can be little doubt of the sophisticated planning and training required to carry out this attack. The competence of the assailants indicates that their organizations are highly professional, well-trained and in possession of accurate intelligence about Israeli civilian traffic and military operations along the border with Egypt.
Without the benefit of surprise, Thursday’s attackers will be hard pressed to maintain their offensive in the coming days. But the possibility that the assault was just the opening round of a new irregular war emanating from Sinai cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, due to the IDF’s institutional opposition to confronting emerging threats before they become deadly, Israel faces the prospect of escalated aggression from Sinai with no clear strategy for contending with the enemy actors operating in the peninsula.
This enemy system includes Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic terror cells. It also includes the Egyptian military and security forces operating in the area, whose intentions towards Israel are at best unclear.
LIKE THE watershed events in Judea and Samaria, in Lebanon and in Gaza, Thursday’s attack from Sinai did not come out of nowhere. It was a natural progression of the deterioration of the security situation in Sinai in recent months and years.
For more than a decade all the security trends in Sinai have been negative.
Sinai is populated mainly by Beduin. When Israel controlled Sinai from 1967 through 1981, the Beduin were willing to cooperate with Israel on both civil and military affairs. When Egypt took over in 1981, it punished the Beduin for their willingness to work with Israel. Perhaps as a consequence of this, perhaps owing more to regional trends emanating from Saudi Arabia, since the mid-1990s, the Sinai Beduin, like neighboring tribes in the Jordanian desert and, to a degree, their Israeli Beduin brethren, have been undergoing a process of Islamification as the loyalties of more and more tribes have been transferred to regional and global jihadist forces.
The first tangible indication of this came with the 2004 bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Taba.
That attack was followed by bombings in Sharm e-Sheikh and Dahab in 2005 and 2006. All the attacks were reportedly carried out by Beduin terror cells affiliated with al-Qaida.
Since the Palestinian terror war began in 2000, then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak did almost nothing to prevent massive arms smuggling by Palestinian terror groups through Sinai. The Palestinians – from Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad – were assisted by Sinai Beduin as well as by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. Mubarak also did next to nothing to prevent human and drug trafficking from Sinai into Israel and Gaza.
Mubarak did, however, protect the Egyptian regime’s control over Sinai by among other things sealing the official land border from Egypt to Gaza at Rafah, defending Egyptian police stations and other security installations and vital infrastructure such as the gas pipeline from attack. Forces from his Interior Ministry kept a firm grip on the Beduin tribes.
As bad and increasingly complex as the security situation was becoming in Sinai under Mubarak, it has drastically deteriorated since he was overthrown in February. Actually, the Egyptian government arguably lost control over Sinai while Mubarak was being overthrown, and until last weekend made no attempt to reassert its sovereign control over the area.
As the world media ecstatically reported on the photogenic anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square, almost no attention was paid to the insurgency unfolding in Sinai. Shortly after the protests began in Cairo in mid-January, Hamas sent forces over the border into Egyptian Rafah and El-Arish to attack police stations with rifles and RPGs. Hamas fighters reportedly went as far south as Suez. There they joined other terror forces in bombing and raiding the police station in the town that abuts the Suez Canal. In consortium with local elements, Hamas carried out the first of five bombings so far of Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan.
In a sharp departure from Mubarak’s policies, the ruling military junta opened Egypt’s border with Gaza and so gave local and regional jihadists the ability to freely traverse the international border.
Hamas and its fellow terrorists have used this freedom not only to steeply expand the missile and personnel transfers to the Gaza Strip. They have also escalated their challenge to Egyptian regime control over Sinai.
Over the past several months, in addition to recurrent bombings of the gas pipeline, these forces have attacked police stations and the port at Nueiba. In the wake of their July 30 attack on El-Arish in which two policemen and three civilians were killed, jihadist cells distributed leaflets calling for the imposition of Islamic law on Sinai.
According to media reports, jihadists also took over many of the main highways in Sinai at the beginning of August.
THESE LATEST assaults and the open challenge the leaflets and road takeovers pose to Egyptian state authority caused the military to deploy two battalions of armored forces to Sinai last weekend.
The stated aim of their operation is to defeat the al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist cells operating in the peninsula. Since Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel prohibits the deployment of Egyptian military forces to Sinai, the Egyptian military regime requested and received Israeli permission for the deployment.
It is unclear how effective the latest Egyptian military deployment had been until Thursday’s cross-border attacks on Israel had been. What is clear enough is that Israel cannot expect to receive serious cooperation from the Egyptian military in combating the enemy forces emanating from Sinai. Indeed, at this point it is impossible to rule out the possibility that Egyptian military personnel participated in the murderous attacks.
Passengers in one of the civilian cars attacked by gunmen in the first stage of the operation told the media that their attackers were wearing Egyptian army uniforms.
Almost immediately after the attacks took place, Egyptian military authorities denied the attackers entered Israel from Sinai. These denials signaled that the Egyptian military government will not assist Israel in its efforts to defend itself against the rapidly escalating threats it now faces from Sinai.
And this is not surprising. Since it overthrew Mubarak, the ruling military junta has assiduously cultivated close ties with the politically ascendant Muslim Brotherhood.
Three days before the attack, the IDF announced that its 2012-2017 budget includes no increase in either force size or equipment levels. As one IDF official told Reuters, “Our current capabilities are sufficient for our foreseeable requirements, though we will be investing anew in training and improving rapid-response mobility to allow for more flexibility during emergencies.”
Recently, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz explained that the reason the IDF does not intend to change the training or size of the Southern Command, despite Egypt’s increasing hostility towards Israel, is because Israel doesn’t want to provoke Egypt by preparing for the worst. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quick to ignore Egypt and point his finger at the usual suspects in Gaza.
While it is reasonable to assume the Palestinians were involved in the attack, it is unreasonable to assume that they are the only culprits. And given the deteriorating security situation in Sinai and Egypt’s escalating hostility, it is madness to limit Israel’s attention in the wake of the attack to Gaza.
What the attack shows is that Israel must prepare for the new strategic reality emerging in Egypt. True, it is early yet to predict how Egypt is going to behave in the coming years. But we do not need perfect information about the emerging strategic reality to prepare for it.
Israel’s requirements are clear. We need to invest the necessary resources to fortify the 240-km. border with Egypt by completing the security fence.
We need to increase the Southern Command’s force levels by at least one regular division, preferably an armored one. We need to equip the IDF with more tanks and other platforms designed for desert warfare. We need for the IDF to begin training in desert warfare for the first time in 30 years.
We need to drastically ramp up the quality of our intelligence about Egypt.
On Thursday, we were shown that although the revolution in Egypt was not about Israel, Israel will be its first foreign victim as the new Egypt rejects the former regime’s peace with the Jewish state.
It is a bitter reality. But it is reality all the same and we need to contend with it, as the blood in our streets makes clear.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.