The Egypt-Gaza Powder Keg

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Recent developments on Israel’s southern borders have illustrated the direct relationship between the changes sweeping Arab lands and mounting threats to Israel’s national security.

This past weekend, as Egyptians went to the polls, terrorists operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula fired two Grad rockets into southern Israel.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Recent developments on Israel’s southern borders have illustrated the direct relationship between the changes sweeping Arab lands and mounting threats to Israel’s national security.

This past weekend, as Egyptians went to the polls, terrorists operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula fired two Grad rockets into southern Israel.

The projectiles landed in Uvda and Mitzpe Ramon, which are located north of the Red Sea tourist hub of Eilat. These are areas that had never seen terrorist rocket fire before.

Mitzpe Ramon is situated 14 kilometers north of the Egyptian border. According to Israel Police bomb squad officials, the rockets used in the attack have a maximum range of 22 kilometers, and Israeli security forces say that Sinai is filled with secret weapons caches containing many more rockets, RPGs, machine guns, and anti-tank missiles, as well as terror cells from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al Qaeda-affiliated groups ready to use them.

Soon after the double rocket attack, some of those deadly weapons were put to use again on Sunday, when a four-man terror cell from Sinai attacked a Ministry of Defense construction crew working on a fence being built by Israel on its border with Egypt.

Armed with RPGs and machine guns, the cell, which likely originated in Gaza and may have been sent by Islamic Jihad, infiltrated Israel in an area where the fence has not yet been completed, and ambushed two vehicles containing fence construction crews, killing a 36-year-old Israeli Arab father of four from Haifa.

IDF ground units swiftly arrived, engaging and killing two of the gunmen who entered Israel. Two other attackers who remained on the Egyptian side of the border retreated into the Sinai desert.

Hours later on Sunday, the Israel Air Force carried out a strike against an Islamic Jihad sniper team in northern Gaza which had been attempting to murder Israeli farmers in recent weeks working their land just across the fence. Islamic Jihad responded by shooting a rocket at a rural district in southern Israel. Once again, the Iranian-backed terror organization was busy instigating attacks on civilian targets in Israel, despite Hamas’s pretense of having a monopoly of power in Gaza.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this latest escalation. The first is that the Egyptian military and its political echelon, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is continuing to lose its grip on the Sinai Peninsula. At this stage, SCAF is most concerned about losing Cairo and the political institutions of power to the Islamists, and is engaged in a fateful power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood for control of Egypt, the Arab world’s most influential country.

Signs of this struggle include the decision by Egypt’s constitutional court to dissolve the lower house of parliament, which had come under the firm control of the Islamists, and SCAF’s bold announcement in recent days that it was retaking key political powers back from the Islamist parliament.

It is not difficult to guess who Hamas is rooting for in this internal Egyptian battle. On Monday evening, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh congratulated the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi for his victory over his secular rival, saying he was praying for a strong Egypt that would “restrain” Israel. Hamas supporters danced in Gaza’s streets and handed out sweets to celebrate the apparent victory of their fellow Islamists.

Hamas, having lost its base in the unraveling Syrian state, has high hopes for a new Egypt under Islamist control, where it could set up a solid base, and receive cooperation on arms smuggling through tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai.

A future Hamas-Egypt alliance has the potential to be a relationship based on a shared ideology and common worldview; the opposite of the antagonistic relationship between Hamas and the old Mubarak regime, which was openly hostile to Palestinian Islamists. This future alliance could be much deeper than a mere marriage of convenience.

The second conclusion is that it is no longer possible to separate the Hamas regime in Gaza – a hornet’s nest of jihadi organizations – from neighboring Sinai. Sinai itself cannot be separated from the power struggles in Cairo. The result is an explosive geopolitical triangle, made up of Egypt and Gaza, and the threats emanating from them to southern Israel.

To illustrate this link, one need look no further than the timing of the firing of the rockets, which coincided precisely with presidential elections in Egypt.

While it remains unclear who exactly was behind the attacks, some security officials suspect that Hamas’s dangerous and skilled head of operations, Ra’ad Atar, was involved.

Haaretz ran a report citing security officials as saying that the rockets were fired by Hamas at the request of the Muslim Brotherhood, to help gain votes on elections day.

If true, that would represent an unprecedented level of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood involvement in Sinai and Gaza-based terrorism against Israel.

But that claim was later denied by members of Israel’s security establishment, leaving open the mystery of who fired the rockets, and at whose orders.

If this is the state of affairs before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt, how will things appear under an Islamist Egypt?

One voice within Egypt provided a glimpse into what could lay ahead.

In April, an Egyptian philosopher and analyst named Murad Wahba gave a remarkable interview to a prominent local television channel, translated to English by the Middle East Media Research Institute. In it, he provided viewers with an unflinching view of Egypt’s future under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Wahba made a number of predictions in the interview which are well worth listening to, since his appraisal is not hindered by wishful thinking or diplomatic constraints.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is, of course, exploiting the issue of Israel, and is trying to generate threats from Sinai, in an attempt to drag the Egyptian army into starting another war with Israel. But I think that the military leadership is aware of what is happening in the Sinai, and of the goals underlying these incidents. Therefore, in my view, there will be a crisis between the leadership of the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“For the Egyptian military leadership, the notion of war pertains to national security: our army’s mission is to defend us against an attacking enemy, but it is not part of its mission to artificially initiate a war. For the Muslim Brotherhood, war is something one initiates, in an effort to convert the region and the entire world to Islam. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically required to start wars,” he added.

Wahba was then asked about the Brotherhood’s apparent commitment to the Egypt-Israel peace accord – cited by many in the West as proof of the organization’s moderation and rationality.

“I always pay attention to theexpressions they use when they talk about their commitment to the international agreements,” he answered. “They always add the qualifier: ‘But it’s subject to change and to discussion.’ That is their tactic. I’ve noticed that theyalways conclude with a ‘but’ – ‘we honor the international agreements, butthe people will have its say.’ ‘If circumstances change, it may becomenecessary to reexamine [the treaty].’ It is these expressions that willenable them to send the Egyptian army to initiate war against Israel in thefuture,” Wahba said.

Today, the Egyptian army is a secular, potent political force that supports regional stability. But Wahba was peering into the future, to a time when the Muslim Brotherhood might succeed in its task of banishing the army from the political scene.

“If the army returns to the military bases, and the Muslim Brotherhood takesover the state institutions, it will mean the Islamization of the countryand of society. When that happens, the army, which is a state institution,will undergo Islamization willy-nilly,” Wahba said.

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood had a direct hand in the recent rocket attacks or not, its gradual ascendency to power and the weakening of the Egyptian military will require significant redeployment of Israeli security forces along the southern border.

For now, terrorists intent on using the Sinai to launch attacks know that Israel is enormously reluctant to even weigh the idea of engaging threats on Egyptian territory in Sinai, meaning that Israel can only respond defensively to these types of attacks.

But if the Egyptian military is unable to retake control of Sinai, and if Israel is faced with more serious and deadly potential future atrocities that are planned and executed south of the border, Jerusalem may need to begin weighing pinpoint counter-terrorism operations in Sinai to protect its civilians.

That development would undoubtedly raise the stakes in the region.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.