Israel Is Powerless as Terror Groups Target Touristy Border Town

Senior Haaretz analyst Amos Harel says that a recent rocket attack on the southern town of Eilat shows that Jerusalem, fearing complications with its already tense relations with Egypt, cannot respond to a growing Sinai terror threat.

The Grad-type Katyusha rocket attack on Eilat Thursday demonstrates the bind Israel is in along its border with Egypt. While construction of the new border fence is advancing at an impressive pace, gradually reducing the possibility of infiltration from Sinai, the Israel Defense Forces has no real solution to fence-avoiding rocket fire threatening Eilat. Nor does Israel have a clear culprit to hold responsible on the other side, seeing that it doesn't wish to further destabilize its already strained ties with Egypt. And with no explicit responsibility announced for the shooting, it seems that Israel willl find it hard to respond harshly by attacking the Gaza Strip.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went down to the Egyptian border and congratulated the work's progress (raking in the standard political capital, being the "first to recognize," and so on). To be fair, Netanyahu in fact supported the fence as a way to block migrant workers as early as when he came into office. But it was the attack on Road 12 last August, responsible for the deaths of eight Israelis, that accelerated funding for the project. So far, almost half of the fence's planned 230 kilometers has been completed, with construction due to be over by the beginning of 2013. Even though a fence that is completely infiltration proof doesn't exist, the barrier's completion will greatly reduce the entry of those smuggling arms and migrant workers. It's also expected to make sophisticated attacks – such as the one which took place in August – more difficult.

Benjamin Netanyahu on Egypt border - GPO - 9.2011

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Kayusha rocket fire, however, is a much simpler issue. The Sinai is rife with stockpiles of arms, some of which were likely looted from Gadhafi's warehouses in Libya. The combination of the Gaza terror groups' knowhow and means with the Sinai Bedouin's need for income (along with the strengthening of extreme Islamic ideology) serves as a fertile ground for the operation of launching squads. And, of course, no fence can stop rockets being fired over it.

The rocket traces found in south Eilat, Thursday, April 5, 2012.
Eilat District Police

The range of possible responses available to Israel, as aforementioned, is limited. The IDF will have a hard time executing surgical strikes in the Sinai, fearing the disturbance of Israel-Egypt relations. Even though Cairo doesn't admit to it officially, all involved have already come to understand that the desert peninsula has become a no-man's land, over which Egyptian authorities don't bear even the slightest pretension of control. And to exact a price in Gaza, Israel needs clear proof of a Palestinian connection to the shooting on Eilat, proof that Israel has failed to published until now.

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The next hours will likely bring Israeli threats saying it cannot suffer the Eilat attack. In reality, however, officials in Jerusalem are glad that the nightly volley ended without casualties, in a way that doesn't bind the cabinet to an assertive response. The bottom line is that Eilat, a city dependant on tourism for its income, is targeted by terror groups in the Sinai and Gaza. Taking into account the relative ease with which this can be achieved, it won't be a major surprise if we see further attempts on the area in the coming weeks.

One of Eilat's hotel strips.
Mori Chen