Analysis || As Sinai border heats up, Egypt buries its head in the sand
The security situation on the Israel-Egypt border has now reached crisis point, while relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are way beyond that.
Beyond last week's dramatic media coverage of the female soldier deployed with the Karakal infantry battalion credited with helping to end a terror attack, and the subsequent Facebook correspondence between her and a female colleague who hid when the firing began, the incident last Friday in which Israel Defense Forces soldier Cpl. Natanel Yehoshua Yahalomi was killed gives Israel cause for concern.
This was the third military operation carried out by Islamic organizations on the Egyptian border in the past three months. In other incidents, an Israeli worker engaged in the construction of the border fence was killed, and extremists attacked an Egyptian base and killed 16 Egyptian policemen there.
Israeli spokesmen are remaining diplomatic, loath to hint in public about what Israel's security establishment has concluded. But the truth is that Israeli security officials are convinced that steps reportedly taken by the Egyptians to quell extremists' terror activity in the Sinai peninsula region have had negligible effect.
Even after the widely publicized operation carried out by Egyptian security forces in Sinai, during August and September, dozens of armed Bedouin were able to launch an attack on an Egyptian security compound in El-Arish. Such developments indicate that Egypt's government has not displayed the will or ability necessary to bring order to the region.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi exploited the murder of the 16 policemen near Kerem Shalom on August 5 to carry out a purge in his army intelligence forces. Yet the shock caused by this massacre, perpetrated during the iftar meal held to end a religious fast, did not compel Morsi to take the serious measures needed to restore order to Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership is more concerned about holding onto power in Cairo, and in cities along the Nile; rampages conducted by groups influenced by Al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula are a lower priority to Egypt's new government.
Morsi tried to engage with extremists in Sinai, but the negotiations led nowhere. Attacks on Egypt's army in Sinai have escalated during the past two weeks. Palestinian security officials claim that Islamic Jihad activists in Sinai have threatened to take action against Morsi on three different levels, should Egypt's president continue to pressure them: they threaten to attack tourist targets around the Red Sea; sites in the Suez Canal region; and also various Egyptian cities. Along these same lines, sources claim that the explosion that occurred on September 22 at the Talkha train station constituted a message sent by extremist organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood.
At Ismailia, on the western bank of the Suez Canal, authorities uncovered a huge arsenal of explosives, which were apparently to be used by extremists for an attack on the canal.
Meantime, IDF forces remain on alert along the Egyptian border. Security officials doubt that last Friday's attack was the last of its kind. As the extremist organizations see it, they have strong reason to conduct reprisals against Israel - among other things, extremists want to avenge the killing of one of their major operatives, who died due to a mysterious explosion which occurred while he was traveling on his motorcycle in Sinai a month ago (Israel has not acknowledged any responsibility for this incident ).
The problem here is clear and ominous: we are talking about increasingly expansive activity undertaken by highly radical organizations that view Israel as an accessible target, in a period when a new Egyptian government has not shown much determination to bring such militant terror actions to an end. This problem is linked to Hamas' situation in Gaza. Israel killed three Palestinians in the Strip last week, in an aerial action. The three militants belonged to an extremist Islamic group, one that Shin Bet security service officials claim had been planning to launch a terror attack from the Egyptian border against an Israeli target. Yet, like another incident that occurred earlier this month, it appears the three men also had links with Hamas.
For practical reasons - particularly a desire to refrain from a military standoff with Israel, which might jeopardize its rule in Gaza - Hamas is reluctant to initiate terror attacks directly. However, Hamas maintains contact with extremist groups in Sinai, and it appears to be indirectly involved in actions taken against Israel. Israel and Hamas are aware of the organizational affiliation of militants who are killed in operations; officials from each side are aware of what the other side knows.
As things stand, it seems that Hamas will find it difficult to restrain violent actions undertaken by militants in Sinai who have some connection to it.
Israel is also caught in a trap. It has very limited freedom to act in Sinai, due to fears of a conflagration with Egypt's government. Should Israeli officials gain information about plans to launch a terror attack from Sinai, the main plotters of which are situated in Gaza, they would prefer to strike against the Gazan militants before the action is initiated in Sinai. On the other hand, another killing of operatives in Gaza would escalate tensions with Hamas. Despite the basic interest shared by Israel and Hamas in the continuation of relative quiet, the chances of an eruption of violence on the Gaza border in the near future seem to be rising.
Reconciled to separation
After a number of years in which the Palestinians have sought the establishment of a "safe crossing point" between Gaza and the West Bank, it appears that just such a route has been found. "N," a resident of Ramallah, told Haaretz this week that he intends to visit the Gaza Strip: "I take a plane from Amman to El-Arish - there is now a direct flight between these two cities - and from there I travel to the Rafah border and cross into Gaza," he said.
How does he make the journey from Rafah to Gaza? "Through the tunnels, of course," N explains. Asked if it's dangerous, he replies: "Dangerous? Are you kidding? There's a motor-scooter taxi service - one brings me from the Egyptian side of the border to the Gazan side of the tunnel, no problem."
A review of the circumstances in Gaza revealed that this information is correct. Yet even though safe passage has now been established between Gaza and the West Bank, it appears that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has never been farther away. Several factors have come together in past months to exacerbate the fight between the two organizations.
Hamas has undergone major changes in the past week, some of which will have a direct impact upon the chances for rapprochement between Palestinian politics' main forces. The most dramatic change was the quiet ousting of Khaled Meshal as director of Hamas' political bureau. Meshal, who officially announced this week that he has no intention of fighting to retain his leadership post in the current, hotly contested, election campaign, has been a consistent supporter of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Along with Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas, Meshal is signed to the "Doha agreement," under which Abbas was supposed to serve as leader of a unity government until the staging of national Palestinian elections.
In fact, the Doha accord was what led to the end of Meshal's political career. After he left Damascus, and lost the political-financial patronage of Syria and Iran, he basically turned into just another political functionary in Hamas. The Gazan Hamas leadership, under the direction of Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh, was determined to scrap the reconciliation accord with Fatah, even if doing so meant a direct showdown with Meshal. The bottom line is that Haniyeh won this clash with Meshal.
The latter's exit also symbolized the weakening of Hamas' military "chief of staff," Ahmed Jabri. According to Israeli officials, Mohammed Deif, an operative active since the 1990s, has played an increasingly major role in Hamas' military wing; according to Palestinian security sources, two other old-new players have been challenging Jabri in Gaza: Yehiye Sinwar and Ruhi Mushtaha, two of the prisoners liberated in the Gilad Shalit deal last October. Ironically, Jabri - who was instrumental in the finalizing of the Shalit exchange and the freeing of the two - inadvertently created an opposition force in Hamas' military wing.
Another change that jeopardizes prospects for national Palestinian reconciliation involves the rise of the Islamic government in Egypt, and its close links with Hamas. Top-ranking Palestinian sources report that, over the past few weeks, Hamas leaders - particularly Haniyeh - have tried to convince Morsi and his colleagues in the Egyptian government to establish a free-trade zone in the Rafah-El-Arish area. These sources view the lobbying as part of a Hamas attempt to foster symbols of sovereignty, and to separate once and for all from the West Bank.
During a visit last week to Cairo, Haniyeh tried to persuade Egypt's leaders to allow Hamas to have security responsibility in the Rafah-El-Arish zone, the sources say. Such a move would relieve the Egyptians of a major headache - dealing with the extremists in northeast parts of Sinai. The sources say the very fact that leaders in Cairo agreed to receive Haniyeh was fraught with significance. Such a reception, they explain, constitutes Egyptian recognition of Hamas sovereignty on the Gaza Strip, and willingness to discuss various trade-agreement proposals.
Warnings relayed by Egypt's general intelligence service, its foreign ministry and other government branches dissuaded Morsi from acceding to Haniyeh's proposals regarding a free-trade zone, these Palestinian sources say. Yet the Hamas-Egypt alliance continues to consolidate, and Fatah officials in Ramallah seem increasingly isolated.
One after another, Abbas' allies in the Arab world seem to be separating themselves from him. Egypt is under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Jordan, King Abdullah II's next steps are hard to anticipate; possibly, he could choose to lessen internal ferment against his rule by moving closer to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar's Ambassador to the Gaza Strip, Mohammad Al-Emadi, visited Haniyeh's home this week to announce a $254 million project to develop Gazan infrastructure. This notification came at a time when the Palestinian Authority lacks the funds to pay workers' salaries. One can imagine how the Qatari announcement will boost Haniyeh's status within Hamas.
Palestinian Authority sources suspect that the U.S. government is conducting quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Hamas, using Morsi and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as intermediaries. These well-placed sources explain that Washington has delivered messages to Hamas about its willingness to cooperate with the Islamic organization, should it accept conditions stipulated by the Quartet on the Middle East.
And as icing on the cake, despite the fact that the Netanyahu government has offered some economic assistance to the PA, it appears to being doing its utmost to undermine Abbas and his regime politically. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's unbridled attacks on Abbas have caused many PA officials to harbor the logical concern that Israeli officials would welcome a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.
One top PA official told Haaretz this week that, paradoxically, the political outlook of Israel's government currently bears a stronger resemblance to that of Hamas than of Fatah: "Both you [Israeli officials] and Hamas talk about temporary solutions. Lieberman and Hamas rule out talks based on the 1967 borders. And, to a certain extent, Hamas today is prepared to accept a type of temporary government in the West Bank because, as it sees things, the real solution - i.e., Israel's destruction - will occur in the future."