There will be numerous analyses, in the days ahead, of the horrific terrorist attack today in southern Israel. (Ed has a link to Carl in Jerusalem’s liveblog; I can also recommend the Muqata’s liveblog timeline.) Here are a few preliminary thoughts:
1. As Ed implies, the first significance of this attack is that it was mounted from Egypt. The terrorists involved had to move from Gaza into Egypt and then across Egypt’s border into Israel. The fact that they were able to is what matters.
There have been a few rocket attacks from Egypt into Israel in recent years (e.g., the latest one from August 2010), and the occasional border crossing by one or two individuals for relatively minor attacks. But the scale of the crossing required for the 18 August attack has few if any precedents. The terrorists who originally fired on the first civilian bus were reportedly in a car, in which they almost certainly crossed the border. There were multiple attacks using military-grade weapons (variously referred to as RPGs and anti-tank weapons) as well as a “gun battle” in the vicinity of the first bus attack, a shoulder-fired projectile launched at an IDF helicopter, and an IED used to attack an emergency response crew arriving at the scene.
The bus driver reported that the attackers were wearing Egyptian army uniforms. But the Israeli authorities knew that the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), a Gazan group with ties to Hezbollah, was planning an attack (although they didn’t know where or when), and the PRC took credit for it very shortly after it was launched. It is much more likely that PRC terrorists were wearing Egyptian uniforms than that Egyptian soldiers joined in the attack. There have been several armed Bedouin raids on Egyptian army posts in the northern Sinai since the revolution erupted in mid-January (see here and here, for example); army uniforms would not be that hard to come by for Hezbollah operatives in the peninsula.
And there are Hezbollah operatives in the Sinai. Hezbollah has operated there for years, even plotting to attack the Suez Canal in 2009, and a number of its members who were jailed by the Egyptians for that plan escaped from prison during the chaos of January and February 2011.
Hamas, meanwhile, has denied involvement in the attacks on 18 August – and indeed, the attacks in the south were attended by curiously little in the way of coordinated rocket attacks from Gaza. Hours after IDF forces responded to the initial attacks, there were unconfirmed reports of mortar fire from Gaza on the Israeli village of Kissufim (well to the north of the southern attacks). And after the IAF strike on a PRC target in Gaza, conducted in the early evening, two Qassam rockets were launched from Gaza at Ashkelon and intercepted by Iron Dome. The scope of the southern attacks would argue, however, for a much bigger and more usefully timed barrage from Gaza, if they were coordinated by Hamas.
Of the major players in this drama (and their networks), only Israel is in the same condition she was a year ago. Egypt, with Mubarak gone, is wracked by revolution; the Sinai is increasingly lawless. Hezbollah has established a precarious unity government in Lebanon, but in Syria, the Assad regime is hanging on only by inviting in Iranian paramilitary forces and committing atrocities against its people. Hezbollah has moved weapons stores out of Syria because of the threat to Assad. Hamas was reported to be moving its headquarters out of Syria, but, in an interesting coincidence, asserted only yesterday that previous reports of its headquarters moving to Egypt were untrue.
It would be a flawed approach to assume that an attack with a profile this unusual is nothing more than a continuation of previous patterns – e.g., Hamas hoping to prejudice the peace process or otherwise undermine Israel, in the limited and linear manner of the past. Too much has changed. The situation’s strategic outlines are no longer what they were. The major differences are that Egypt is in play – no longer secure under Mubarak – and Assad looks iffy in Syria.
In light of those facts, the overtures between Iran and Egypt are particularly interesting. Besides Egypt entertaining a visit from a leader of the Iranian majlis this month – one of a lengthening series of contacts in the renewal of diplomatic ties severed in 1979 – Iran is reportedly taking a key step toward normalizing relations with Egypt: sending the plotters of Anwar Sadat’s assassination, who have had asylum in Iran for decades, out of the country.
It’s too early to determine where alliances and affiliations will shake out in the future. But it’s not too early to recognize that Hezbollah and Hamas, along with their patron Iran, have reason to stake a claim in the future of Egypt. Their orientation is no longer as solidly centered on Syria as it was six months ago. Hamas’s horizons have traditionally been narrower than Hezbollah’s, but either one is in a position to see influence and freedom of action in the Sinai as an alternative to its traditional ties to Damascus. That bodes ill for Egypt.
2. Also significant is that the events of 18 August constituted a sustained, multi-pronged attack. The practice of conducting one attack on Israelis, and then attacking the emergency responders, is a common one. But the 18 August attack encompassed at least two buses and a car (the vehicle carrying the two Israeli children who were killed), as well as the emergency response forces and the IDF helicopters dispatched to search for the attackers. Nearly 7 hours after the initial attack (at almost 7:00 PM in Israel), gunfire was reportedly directed from the Egyptian side of the border at Israelis in the vicinity of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was conducting a press conference from the site of the attack. That would seem to indicate that the terrorists were able to regenerate or hold forces in reserve on the Egyptian side of the border – a bad sign about both their tenacity and the security conditions in that part of the Sinai.
In the 2:00 hour, shooting was reported on the northern border with Syria as well. This may or may not have been related to the events in the south. If it was, it would represent an even greater ramp-up in terror coordination. I’m not convinced these were prongs of the same attack. But the sustained nature of the aggregate attacks in the south, across space and time, imply a level of prior planning and a scope of operation beyond what has previously been seen from terrorism out of Gaza. This wasn’t a shoot-and-scoot, a rocket or mortar barrage, or a focused suicide bombing; the terrorists repositioned (or prepositioned) to attack again, including firefights with the IDF, over a period of hours. The attack’s character was more that of a guerrilla operation than pure hit-and-run terrorism.
3. The most significant potential outcome of this event is a perceived necessity for Egypt to increase her troop levels in the Sinai. Egypt added about 800 troops in the peninsula in January and February, and Israel reportedly agreed to another 1000 additional Egyptian troops earlier this week, in the wake of multiple attacks on the gas pipeline that runs from Egypt into Israel. (On the terms of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, any increase in Egypt’s troop level in the Sinai – which was demilitarized by the agreement – must be approved by Israel.)
The additional troops have been dedicated so far to restoring order in the northern Sinai, and ensuring the security of the Suez Canal. Making the peninsula impenetrable to Hezbollah or Hamas would be an operation of much greater scope, however. Securing the northern Sinai – main roads, army posts, the Rafah crossing, the pipeline – and securing the Canal involve defending installations and territory on a limited basis. Preventing foreign terrorists from using the vast expanses of the peninsula as an operational rear would involve patrolling tremendous swaths of territory. Even the smaller task of keeping the border with Israel under positive control would require a significant number of additional assets (on the order of 1000-2000 more soldiers, including helicopter squadron(s)).
Truly cleaning up the Sinai might be too politically explosive for Egypt to undertake before the national election later this year. But the problem isn’t going away, and once there is an elected, consensus government in power, that government will be motivated – regardless of its character – to bring order to the Sinai. It won’t want to be dragged into dust-ups with Israel (or Jordan, for that matter) by terrorist groups it doesn’t control.
The prospects, therefore, are for a continued, incremental expansion of the Egyptian troop presence in the peninsula. It is well to remember why the Sinai was demilitarized in the first place: to ensure that Egypt would not be in a position to launch a surprise attack on Israel. Establishing an ever-higher “normal” for the level of forces there will chip away at that insurance. Is Egypt anxious to launch an attack on Israel? Not today. But as an Egyptian troop presence grows in the Sinai – for reasons that seem iron-clad and urgent as they crop up – that could certainly change.