Rocket fire from Sinai into the southern Negev Monday morning, the second such incident within less than two weeks, was meant to reflect a change in the way Wilayet Sinai, the local arm of ISIS, operates. In both instances there were no injuries (Iron Dome shot down the last volley at Eilat), but it seems the organization is seeking to establish a “balance of deterrence,” by which it exacts a price from Israel for what it perceives as aid to the Egyptian security forces fighting it.
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- Unusual alliances, conflicting interests behind tensions in Israel's south
Wilayet’s priorities are clear. Its most important goal is to exact a blood price from the Egyptian generals’ regime. Compared to that, the struggle against Israel is a minor issue. Besides the one fatal attack in Israel in 2011 (which killed eight civilians and soldiers north of Eilat, when the organization was still loyal to Al-Qaida) and a few rocket volleys fired at Eilat, there have not been any prominent attacks against Israeli targets.
However, recently it seems something is beginning to change. The explanation is probably related to the string of successes the Egyptians have registered in recent months, by way of aerial attacks in which many ISIS members were hit – among them, according to some reports, the branch’s former leader in Sinai.
Israel and Egypt report close security coordination along the border, but do not divulge details. ISIS accuses Israel of providing intelligence assistance to the Egyptian effort against it as well as aerial attacks by drones. There have been a number of assaults on ISIS targets across Sinai since the Eilat attack. On Saturday night, several ISIS members were wounded. The shooting Monday morning signals to Israel that it will not be able to watch what transpires in Sinai from the sidelines. Escalation of the fighting there will have consequences for the eastern side of the border.
However, the Arab media’s automatic attribution to Israel of drone attacks is not necessarily correct. In recent months, the Egyptians have started using Chinese attack drones called Wing Loong. Various internet reports assert that in recent years the Chinese sold various types of attack drones to a number of Arab countries, among them Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. The large number of attacks in Sinai in recent months, which in some cases killed civilians, also probably bears witness that Egyptian security forces are playing a central role in the assaults.
Change at the top
The aggressive line of ISIS in Sinai toward Israel, which is now shifting from declarations to preliminary actions, is likely explained, too, by the changes at the top of the organization. It is now being led by an Egyptian who is not a native of Sinai. The man is thought to be leading an aggressive approach even by ISIS standards.
Another consideration is connected to developments in the trilateral balance of power between Hamas in Gaza, the Egyptian regime and ISIS in Sinai. Until recently, Hamas and ISIS in Sinai cooperated secretly against the Egyptians. Hamas treated wounded ISIS fighters smuggled from Sinai into Gaza hospitals, and collaborated with ISIS members in joint smuggling operations. However, relations between Cairo and Gaza have changed in recent months. Egypt started easing the pressure on the Rafiah Crossing and allowing much freer passage of people and goods through it. Hamas, in exchange, promised to stop aiding ISIS.
The Sinai branch thus has two reasons to be angry at Hamas – for fostering closer ties with Egypt, and for getting tougher with the Salafi jihadist organizations close to ISIS, arresting dozens of their men in Gaza. If the escalation on the Egyptian border drags Gaza into the cauldron as well, ISIS will not have any reason to be sorry.
The Netanyahu government, certainly in its newest incarnation since last May with Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, stresses over and over that it will not show restraint despite the skirmishes and the rocket fire into its territory. That is how it responds to rockets from Gaza and to the occasional mortar shells, most of them errant, that Israel catches during exchanges between the Assad regime and rebels along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights.
However, the reality in Sinai is changing. Egypt, alongside Jordan, is Israel’s most important security partner in the region. The response evidently lies in tightening coordination with Egypt in the hope that its security services will score additional successes in the war on ISIS. Still, in the longer term, the likelihood is that a relatively new threat is taking shape, one that is liable to affect the delicate balance between Israel, Egypt, Hamas and ISIS, both in Sinai and in the Gaza Strip.