A surge of violence in Egypt's Sinai desert this week is heightening Israeli concerns about what officials and analysts describe as the growing presence of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadis along the Jewish state's borders.
Egypt used warplanes in Sinai for the first time in decades to strike at the militants this week, after Islamists killed 16 Egyptian security men Sunday, stole a truck full of explosives and an armored vehicle and headed for Israel to try and perpetrate more violence.
The truck exploded harmlessly at the border while an Israeli fighter plane bombed the other vehicle, preventing what could have been a devastating terrorist attack.
But the incident underscored the ways in which rising lawlessness not just in Sinai but also in Syria—another of Israel's neighbor's—could embroil Israel in new and menacing security problems, even as its conflict with the Palestinians remains largely dormant.
“I think we’re finally starting to wake up and understand that the instability, in Syria even more than in Egypt, is allowing jihadi groups to come in,” said David Bukay, a professor of Middle East studies at Israel’s Haifa University. “People have to understand that the alternative to Bashar al-Assad (the Syrian president) is Al-Qaeda,” he said.
In Syria, the violence has yet to extend to the Golan Heights, the mountainous border region that Israel has occupied since capturing it from Syria in 1967. But the combination of a weakening central authority and the potential for chemical weapons to fall into the hands of jihadi groups has prompted grim assessments.
Bukay is one of the more strident voices in the Israeli discourse on evolving security threats. He says the United States erred in helping Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi and should now be backing Assad rather than supporting the uprising underway Syria. In the case of Libya, he said, the government that replaced Gaddafi is helping arm Islamic insurgents across the region.
Most Israeli government and military officials reject the idea that Assad should be propped up. They say his departure would deal a major blow to Iran, which has close ties with the Assad regime. And they point to his crackdown on the popular rebellion, with more 15,000 civilians killed across Syria, as evidence of his brutality.
But they do share Bukay’s assessment on the growing presence of jihadis in both Syria and Egypt.
In a closed-door briefing last month, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi told Israeli lawmakers: “The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that’s a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria.”
In Egypt, the situation is complicated by the election earlier this summer of an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi pledged after the border incident earlier this week to wipe out the groups in Sinai responsible for the violence. He ordered airstrikes yesterday after a second clash between militants and Egyptian security men—the first involvement of the Egyptian air force in Sinai in decades.
But Israelis say Morsi’s reluctance to engage in the kind of close security cooperation with Israel that existed during the long reign of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, has hampered efforts to stem the violence.
“Egypt doesn’t have effective control over the areas and the Islamic fundamentalist tribes are actually controlling the area, challenging the regime and doing whatever they want in Sinai,” said Dan Harel, a retired Israeli general who commanded Israel’s southern region, including the border area with Egypt, from 2003 to 2006
He said Israel had conveyed intelligence information to Egypt ahead of border attack but that the other side failed to act on it.
Not much is known about the jihadis operating in Sinai and neither side could say precisely which group carried out the attack. Israel says the Sinai extremists have ties to militants in the Gaza Strip, though it’s not clear what evidence Israelis have to support it.
Israel and Egypt have been at peace since their landmark accord in 1979. The agreement lays out restrictions on the number of troops Egypt can deploy in Sinai, which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the peace.
Morsi said during his campaign that he would honor the agreement but might seek changes in order to allow Egypt to deploy more troops in Sinai.
But Israel says it already consented to a large deployment that the Egyptians never made.