Attacks from Gaza on Israel have ramped up significantly in the last several days. An Israeli patrol was hit by what was thought to be a roadside bomb on Tuesday (three were wounded), near the border fence with Gaza. On Saturday, terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep with four infantrymen in it, as the patrol operated in the area of the roadside bomb attack. The four soldiers were wounded, one severely. More than 80 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel since the attack on the jeep on Saturday, 10 November. At least three Israeli civilians were injured in the rocket attacks.
Geography is beginning to rear its head again, as Israel has also sustained incursions into the Golan from Syria in recent days. On Sunday, Israel fired “warning shots” into Syria after the latest incursion, which involved mortar rounds from Syria landing in the Golan.
Egypt is seeking to broker another soon-to-be-violated ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, but on Israel’s Egyptian flank, the stakes are being raised by “non-state actors.” On Sunday, unidentified “gunmen” opened fire on an Egyptian security forces camp near the border with Israel in the northeastern Sinai. Security in the Sinai has been a major – and legitimate – concern for Egypt since before the Arab Spring began; Iranian-sponsored subversives were identified as operating there while Mubarak was still in power, and as recently as August 2012, terrorists in the Sinai attempted to use stolen Egyptian military equipment to ram structures at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel.
Israel has responded to the attacks from Gaza with air attacks on the terrorists’ infrastructure, as well as an immediate counter-attack against the position of the anti-tank missile launcher on Saturday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Israel won’t hesitate to launch a Gaza operation, presumably similar to Cast Lead in early 2009.
A month ago, The Israel Project published an excellent analysis pointing out that the posture of Hamas in Gaza was very much like its aggressive posture in 2008, from militarizing civilian facilities like mosques to unifying Gaza-based terror groups under its political leadership. In terms of the latter, an armed faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the missile attack on the jeep on Saturday, along with Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. It is quite possible that both groups are acting under Hamas’s operational leadership at the moment.
Changing conditions for peace
The Arab Spring has changed the factors in this dynamic since the timeframe of Operation Cast Lead, however. In January of 2009, Israel didn’t face the prospect of a significant remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, she does. No one nation or event has created the situation that now exists, but it could be something of a Catch-22 for decision-makers in Jerusalem. Crack down on Gaza hard enough, and the resulting spillover into the Sinai will give Mohammed Morsi legitimate reasons to increase his military presence there. Yet Israel doesn’t have the option of simply allowing Hamas to ramp up its attacks on civilians across the south – or on Israeli infantry patrols, for that matter.
Could Israel get an explicit, enforceable agreement from Morsi to coordinate each and every military deployment into the Sinai, so that Israel would effectively have a veto over deployments she considered too dangerous? It doesn’t matter that those are essentially the terms of the treaty. Morsi is a new ball-game. Nothing is clear right now, partly because we don’t know how fast Morsi wants to move on his ideological designs on Jerusalem – and partly because it isn’t clear what the United States will do.
The US was the essential third leg of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord, and our affirmation of interest in it is the only thing that will keep it in force, at least for a time, if Egypt decides it’s better to start maneuvering around the treaty than to honor it straightforwardly. During Egypt’s turmoil in the first half of 2011, President Obama did not reaffirm that the 1979 accord was a core national security interest of the United States – a measure that would have been simple, basic statesmanship. His administration has been virtually silent on the subject.
The point here is not to assert that Obama doesn’t care about the treaty and will stand by passively as it is contravened. The point is that we don’t know what he’ll do. My own assessment is that what he does will depend on how Morsi handles an effective treaty breach. If Morsi’s words meet the criteria by which Team Obama’s ideologues judge foreign actors, the US Congress may be the last stand in the United States for the principle of the 1979 accord – which could be breached by inches, with small, day-to-day tactical choices, without anyone ever announcing that that’s the intention.
There are two potential conditions ahead: one in which Israel is basically on her own, apart from some American rhetoric, and one in which the US leverages our relationship with Egypt to deter further remilitarization of the Sinai.
We can’t achieve this latter condition by standing aside and making sanctimonious statements to the media. But we could do it by strengthening our counter-terrorism cooperation with Egypt, and taking Morsi as his word that he really does think transnational jihadis roaming the Sinai is a bad thing. Help him rid the Sinai of them, and thus undercut the justification for remilitarizing it.
Morsi is a fact now, and besides having a border with Israel, he has the Suez Canal and long frontage on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. It would be very foolish not to remain engaged with him. But more than that, it is not good for US or regional security for America to be passive and unpredictable in this area of the world. We already have established lines of engagement with both Egypt and Israel. We should use them to deter remilitarization of the Sinai.
Arms and the sea
We should also be doing everything possible to prevent the arming of Hamas. It is not clear whether both of the attacks on the Israeli infantry patrols last week were made with anti-tank missiles, or if only the second one was. But Hamas has used them before, not only against Israeli Merkava tanks during Cast Lead, but against an Israeli school bus with children unloading from it in April of 2011. The attack range and level of damage in the jeep incident on Saturday suggests that the same anti-tank missile – the 9M133 Kornet (NATO designation AT-14 SPRIGGAN) – was used.
The IDF may figure out where Saturday’s anti-tank missile was produced, but we don’t know for certain right now. We do know the Kornet makes Hamas much more tactically effective (see discussion in my piece, first link in last paragraph). We also know that Iran started producing her own version of the Kornet in July 2012. So Hamas has at least one supplier that is eager to continue sending it weapons of this kind.
Iran was also reported in 2011 to have spirited weapons from Muammar Qadhafi’s stash out of Libya, which would be another obvious source of arms for Hamas. It is worth noting that known events suggest a pathway by which Iran could ship Libyan weapons to Hamas. I wrote in late October about Iranian cargo ships plying a circuit between Iran, Egypt, and Libya over the past year, and the main Egyptian port frequented by these ships is Damietta, on the eastern side of Egypt’s Mediterranean Sea coast. (One of the suspect ships, M/V Tandis, pulled into Damietta on 1 November. These operations continue. The Iranian ships are fraudulently flying the flag of Tanzania. More here.)
Damietta is the port through which, in 2009, Iran effected the transshipment of arms intended for Hezbollah to M/V Francop, a cargo ship operated by a reportedly unwitting European shipper. Security and customs are managed in Damietta by a private port-administration firm, a situation in which – as long as the host nation isn’t forcing the issue – the enforcement of sanctions often takes a back seat to simply weighing cargo and assessing fees. Damietta was modernized from 2007 to 2009 by the commercial consortium now running the port – whose major investors are Kuwait, France, and China – and it’s a big money-maker for Egypt.
These particular administrative factors aren’t necessarily implicated in the delivery of arms to Hamas. But Damietta’s location is favorable for primitive delivery methods, like transferring weapons cargo to fishing vessels, and thence to small boats, in which Hamas and its benefactors are known to engage.
That said, Damietta is not as close to Gaza as is the port of El-Arish, in an area where Egypt has been sending additional military assets in the last couple of weeks to combat increasing terrorist attacks on Egyptian forces there. The trend of attacks in the vicinity of El-Arish amounts to a creeping “geographization” effort in the Gaza-Israel dynamic. The conflict now is not just “about” terror attacks against Israel, and counter-attacks by Israel on the terrorists, in a static geography. In the last month or so, it has become about pushing for a new geographic access point – i.e., El-Arish – one that would benefit terrorists in Gaza and open a new vulnerability for Israel.
We don’t know exactly which terrorists these are in El-Arish. But it would be shortsighted to assume that it must be an Iranian-sponsored effort. The same kind of jihadis – Arabs, Sunnis – who have been operating as insurgents in Libya and Syria are no doubt operating in the Sinai. Whether they are in league with Hamas, or have their own agenda, is also uncertain.
And that means that the strategic problem here is more complicated than the well-worn dynamic of Hamas, Israel, and the Western media. This isn’t the prelude to Cast Lead. The situation is different now: geography is in play, and Egypt and America are question marks. A great deal will depend on what it appears America is going to do.
Note for new commenters: Welcome! There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam. There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.