Once peaceful, the Israel-Egypt border has become the IDF's most volatile frontier
Friday's deadly attack further illustrates how unstable the Sinai region has become, a situation that endangers not only the recent calm between Israel and Gaza, but also the already strained relations between Jerusalem and Cairo.
A formerly peaceful border has become the most restive one. Friday's terrorist attack on the Egyptian border, in which Cpl. Netanel Yahalomi was killed, was the third major incident in the area in as many months. In June, an Israeli civilian, an Arab, was shot to death in a cross-border attack while working on the border fence near Kadesh Barnea. In early August, militants in Sinai raided an Egyptian police station and tried to breach the Israeli border at the Kerem Shalom border terminal.
The three terrorists who were killed Friday, thanks to the rapid response of Israeli artillery and infantry units, had planned what the Israel Defense Forces characterized as a "killing spree." Judging by the weaponry they were carrying - an explosive belt, AK-47 assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher - they planned to attack workers building the border fence and the IDF soldiers protecting them. The fact that the fence in the area is still incomplete facilitates border infiltration. Paradoxically, because the construction workers there are relatively exposed, they have drawn the attention of terror organizations.
It is doubtful that the attacks or attempted attacks will stop when the border fence is completed: The final section, near Eilat, is due to be finished early next year. No border is impenetrable, and in any event the fence is useless against Katyusha rockets fired at Eilat from across the border.
The main bottleneck for Israel has to do with intelligence: Prior to the Egyptian revolution of last year and the ensuing cross-border attacks, Sinai was at the bottom of the Israeli intelligence community's agenda. Additional resources have now been brought to bear, but building a credible information-gathering network is a long process, particularly when the intelligence targets are small, virtually impenetrable cells of Islamic extremists.
Since the coordinated attack of August 2011, during which eight Israelis were killed near Ein Netafim, the IDF has expanded security along the Egyptian border and has stepped up deployments there. In light of the recent increase in attempted attacks, the army will presumably send in additional enforcements, and from elite units. The Lebanon and Gaza Strip borders are considered more sensitive because of their proximity to large civilian populations, but in terms of intensity the Egyptian border is currently the hottest.
The identities of Friday's attackers are still unknown. Israel returned the bodies of the three terrorists to Egypt. Past experience points to militants from Islamic extremist organizations, Bedouin fundamentalists from Sinai working either on their own or in coordination with extremist factions in the Gaza Strip.
Alerts over possible attacks launched from Sinai are a daily occurence: As recently as Wednesday the Israeli Air Force killed two Islamic terrorists in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah while they were preparing for a terror attack, presumably from Sinai across the border into Israel. According to reports that have not been confirmed by Egyptian authorities, the attack was in retaliation for the death from explosives of a senior extremist in Sinai. Islamic extremist factions say Israel was responsible for the killing.
Sinai is now an area of worrisome instability. The attacks from across the border jeopardize both the very qualified calm between Israel and Gaza of the past few months and the already fragile relations between Jerusalem and Cairo. After the August raid in the area of the Kerem Shalom border terminal, in which Islamic extremists killed 17 Egyptian policemen, Cairo launched a broad campaign to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure in Sinai - to little effect so far, according to Israeli officials.
Last week there were reports of near-daily clashes between Egyptian forces and militant cells in Sinai, but in most cases it was the terrorists who initiated the incidents.
One new feature of the most recent attack was the terrorists' exploitation of African refugees; IDF soldiers were attacked while trying to prevent them from entering Israel, a fact that will presumably be used to emphasize the security threat supposedly posed by these asylum seekers, despite the absence of any evidence pointing to their cooperation with Sinai terror cells.
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