Sunday's gun battle on the Israeli-Egyptian frontier ended satisfactorily from Israel's perspective. A timely Shin Bet warning allowed the IDF to effectively reinforce the border near Rafah. All terrorists who tried to enter Israel were killed, with no Israeli casualties. Nonetheless, the incident exposes some serious problems for Egypt now, and possibly for Israel later.
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It would be interesting to know what exactly transpired between Israel and Egypt during the preparations to thwart the attack. Israel refuses to address the question directly, but it appears the Egyptians had also received information about a Bedouin organization influenced by al-Qaida and wanting to carry out a terror attack.
While Israel was preparing to thwart the attack, the Egyptian policemen were at Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. This did not seem to deter the terrorists, presumably members of an extremist Islamic group, from entering the Egyptian camp and slaughtering its inhabitants. Egypt's poor performance in the Sinai over time led to Sunday's resounding collapse.
These questions are troubling the Egyptian people, who have more freedom to raise them now than they did in the past. An article posted on an Egyptian protest organization's Facebook page asks why Egyptian intelligence is so weak that it did not know what the Israelis knew. Other reports said Egypt had ignored the Israeli warning.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood must now maneuver in complicated, unfamiliar territory. On the one hand, he has the army generals, his allies by necessity. On the other hand, he faces the terrorists, who are not cutting him any slack just because he's a member of another Islamic movement.
Cairo has ignored the growing anarchy in Sinai for years. But when a group of 35 gunmen - according to Egypt - enters an army camp and kills 16 policemen, Cairo will have no choice but to retaliate. The attack could be seen as the jihadist groups' declaration of war on Morsi's regime and an obvious blow to Egypt's national honor.
Cairo will also try to determine if there was any Gazan involvement in the attack, which also aimed to kill Israelis. Given its current relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, it is doubtful Hamas would risk an action that required the mass killing of Egyptian policemen.
Hamas turns a blind eye every time a group of militants crosses into Sinai and back. Perhaps this is what happened this time as well. Hamas' leaders blamed Israel, as usual, claiming it was involved in carrying out the attack.
This was another assault with no address Israel can easily identify, unless proof emerges that Gazans were behind it. There is no place against which Israel could retaliate - armed groups in Sinai apparently don't operate from known bases. In any case, given the current shaky relations with Egypt, Israel would be reluctant to mount an operation against its territory.
Sinai now, Syria later?
But in the longer term we face a much graver problem. The terrorists have demonstrated sophistication and daring. On the surface it seems like an operation that had been planned over a long time, and in its complexity it resembled global jihad attacks in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Until the air strike, it seemed the forces on the ground did not have a sufficiently strong and accurate firing device to stop the armored personnel carrier earlier without risking civilian casualties.
But not only is there no clear source for this attack (the Shin Bet's ability to obtain intelligence on such an amorphous terror group is very impressive ), there is no one to send a message to, even indirectly. The Sinai terror groups are not the Hamas leadership in Gaza, against whom Israel can use force, or with whom it can negotiate indirectly with the Egyptians or Germans' brokerage.
Sinai has become, in essence, a no-man's land, a "failed state" that serves as fertile ground for ultra-extremist groups and the threat they pose is only now starting to crystallize. This occurrence can be expected to repeat itself in a few months along the Syrian border with the Golan Heights. All the ingredients are already there: A dysfunctional central government, a violent civil war and a steady flow of extremists into the country from throughout the region, all wanting to take part in the new jihad.
How long will it take for these al-Qaida satellite groups, which are currently fighting the Alawite regime, to look westward from Syria's Hauran plateau and discover some tempting Israeli targets within reach?