Washington's Critical Role in Subduing Sinai Threat to Israel

Peace negotiations mean Israel's freedom of action against militias targeting southern Israel is very limited.

As the face-to-face peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are being resurrected, an escalation in rocket fire from Gaza in the past weeks has more or less slipped under the radar. The firing of three rockets from the Strip on July 18, followed by one launched on the July 22, two on July 24 and one on July 30 highlights the continuing threat posed to southern Israel.

Of more concern to Israeli security forces than the effects of these rockets though will likely be the potential connection between this recent escalation and the increasing violence in the Sinai Peninsula. There, Egyptian troops and paramilitary police are battling Islamist militias emboldened by the army’s concentration on its new-found political role, and incensed by the military overthrow of ex-President Mohammed Morsi.

Despite blockading the crossings into Gaza at Rafah, and moving to flood or fill-in smuggling tunnels used by militants, Egyptian Army sources have claimed that both fighters and materiel are still crossing the border to aid militants targeting the security forces. On July 23 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reflected this fear, declaring that Israel was bracing itself should fighting spill over across the border.

Weapons smuggling through Sinai also continues, with a truckload of Grad rockets seized by the Egyptian Army on July 17. At the beginning of this year, when Israel’s domestic intelligence service released a report including an assessment of the threat from the Sinai, it detailed that hundreds of long-range rockets and anti-tank weapons had been trafficked through the Sinai into Gaza.

In order to fully understand why such a threat continues to exist, as well as the predicament it poses Israel’s leadership, it is important to look beyond the smuggling, at the deep-running ideological and operational links between militants in North Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

In November 2012, it was reported that militants from Sinai had crossed into Gaza to assist in fighting against Israel, and Al-Qaida-inspired groups like Ansar Jerusalem, mostly comprised of Egyptians recruited from Sinai Bedouin tribes, are known to have coordinated with Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). 

Ansar Jerusalem claimed responsibility this July for a Grad rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat and last October, it announced that it would target Israel in response to the deaths of two senior jihadist leaders in Israeli airstrikes earlier that month.

Following the strike on Eilat, the group specifically referenced current unrest in Egypt, declaring that “the situation in Egypt in which the Jews have the long hand in inciting, will never stop the wheel of jihad at all," in a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Outside the fold of traditional Palestinian militancy, Ansar Jerusalem’s use of the Sinai Peninsula to attack Israel and inspiration from Al-Qaida connects it to groups based inside Gaza. Foremost amongst these is the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), believed to be responsible for an April attack on Eilat in which two rockets were launched at the city. An umbrella group, bringing together the Salafist militant groups Ansar Al-Sunnah and the Tawhid and Jihad Group amongst others, the MSC has also repeatedly used Gaza as a launch site for rocket fire; it does not recognize the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel; and in June 2012, it dedicated an IED attack - which killed one Israeli - to Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a pre-recorded video address which included a pledge of loyalty to him.

Hamas, held responsible by Israel for militant activity within Gaza, appears to have been attempting to mitigate Salafist activities, through physical intimidation. A member of the Al-Nasser Salah Al-Deen Brigades, part of Gaza's PRC, was badly beaten by Hamas fighters in mid-July. This followed an announcement by the MSC in June that denounced Hamas for preventing the group and its allies from carrying out its jihad.

Despite the beating meted out to the PRC fighter, the rocket attacks on Israel have continued, and should the groups based within the Sinai continue to increase their strength they will embolden their allies inside Gaza. As such, with the international community keen to see peace talks move forward, it will be vital for the U.S. and others to engage with Hamas’ financial backers in the Gulf and stress the importance of challenging this threat.

In this way they may be able to increase the pressure on Hamas to continue its crackdown on Salafist militants, and to support the Egyptian government and security forces in its efforts against insurgency in Sinai. However, at a time when Netanyahu is trying to resume dialogue, limiting his ability to respond militarily, even intervention from these actors will leave Israel in the unenviable situation of relying on the Egyptian Army and Hamas to keep the peace, and the inhabitants of southern Israel are unlikely to tolerate this situation for long if the rockets continue to fall.

Rupert Sutton is a researcher in violent extremism with Strategic Analysis at the Henry Jackson Society and previously worked at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and is an expert on sectarian conflict, paramilitary militias and Islamist militant groups.