Israel also believed that Egypt, with its obsession over its sovereignty in Sinai, is responsible for providing us with security against terror attacks and smuggling from its territory – and therefore Israel is not entitled to thwart attacks in Sinai.
These assumptions were valid and even justified, apart from isolated incidents, for decades. This is how the IDF built the perception of operating its forces and preparing to secure the borderline: Namely, "mobile defense", saving on power and resources.
There was no change even when the inflow of infiltrators from Sinai to Israel grew. Only about a year ago, the government finally decided to build a fence, which will likely provide improved security against infiltrations and terror attacks – and will be completed by 2013, if all goes as planned.
But things took a dramatic turn in the meantime. Several months ago, following President Mubarak's downfall, the Egyptian government and security forces lost control of Sinai. Bedouin tribes, making a living off smuggling and protecting hooligans, have become the masters of the area, which turned into a shelter and hotbed for Global Jihad.
Hundreds of prisoners, members of fundamentalist Salafi organizations who escaped from prison during the upheaval, found safe shelter there. Others fled to Gaza. Many of them collaborated with Sinai's Bedouins and set up groups called "the Islamic Shabab", operating under the banner of Global Jihad.
The peninsula has also turned into a highway of weapon and explosive transfers to and from Gaza, and provides logistic support for the Gazan organizations led by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. They too know that the IDF will not violate the Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai and won't raid or bomb them.
In light of this development, the defense minister has decided to speed up the construction of the fence. Some 100 kilometers (62 miles) will be built by the end of the year, in addition to the existing 45 kilometers, and the construction of all 200 kilometers will be completed next year. In any event, there is no fence in the area of the attack.
Price of 'mobile defense'
Since February, intelligence warnings on terror attacks against Israel from Sinai have been piling up and becoming more and more frequent. The writing was on the wall, but Israel has failed to draw all the conclusions.
Indeed, the forces on the border were reinforced occasionally in accordance with intelligence information, but once the warnings faded away, they were sent elsewhere. The "mobile defense" perception with diluted forces remained unchanged while waiting for the border fence to be completed.
The Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees took good advantage of the breached border. This radical organization is comprised of people who used to belong to other organizations in the past, mainly Hamas and Fatah, but left because they were not aggressive enough for them. They were looking for action.
The Committees quickly began initiating operations against Israel, taking part in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit among other things. According to all signs and information, the main target of Thursday's combined attack was abducting another soldier. They also planned to detonate explosive belts they were wearing on the army and rescue forces dispatched to the area.
The combined offensive was well-planned for a long time. Intelligence was collected by more than 10 people who left Gaza through the Philadelphi Route tunnels, wearing uniform resembling that of the Egyptian army.
Egyptian army cooperating with terrorists
The Israeli intelligence spotted this trend and issued warnings. The information pointed to a terror attack by the Popular Resistance Committees – likely an abduction attempt – about to take place in the Eilat area in the coming days.
But the warning was sufficiently accurate. The IDF boosted its forces in the area with Golani troops. The police sent special elite units to Eilat, likely assuming that the attack would take place within or near the city. But the terrorists surprised them. They acted north of Eilat.
The mountainous area and breached border allowed the terrorists not only to reach Israel secretly, but also to escape into Sinai shortly after carrying out the attack. They knew very well that the IDF would avoid chasing them into the peninsula so as not to violate the Egyptian sovereignty.
Forces fail to block the long border (Photo: Eliad Levy)
To be on the safe side, they chose to come out directly from an Egyptian military post located on the border. It's unlikely that the Egyptian soldiers didn't notice them, but they did nothing to stop them or warn the Israelis of their arrival.
Later, they even fired on IDF forces dispatched to the area, probably with the intention of covering for the terrorists who remained alive and continued to exchange fire with the Israeli soldiers. This cooperation with terrorists is a phenomenon which must be dealt with.
Let forces in despite peace deal
The Edom Division is responsible for the area in which the attack took place. The forces at its disposal are too little to block such a long border passing through a tough mountainous area. Sinai's Bedouins are well aware of the "mobile defense" methods. What they don't see is the technological and human intelligence collection system.
It's reasonable to assume that this system does not have the same means and abilities as similar systems in the Gaza Strip and northern border. This is why they failed to spot the explosive devices planted in the area. It's perfectly clear that the poor means and the army's diluted deployment in the area are incapable of hermetically closing the border. The thousands of refugees and job seekers infiltrating Israel from this area prove it.
Now, when it's perfectly clear that the IDF's deployment on the border does not meet the threat, Israel must draw conclusions. The defense minister decided to speed up the construction of the fence on Thursday. In spite of the heavy financial expenses, when the situation gets tough the pockets suddenly open.
In addition, the eight-minister forum decided last week – following Barak's recommendation – to allow additional Egyptian forces into Sinai, in spite of the fact that this is an alleged violation of the peace agreement, which bans the entry of massive Egyptian forces into the peninsula.
Egyptian operation efficient, but for who?
Indeed, the Egyptians have launched their own operation in the area. But this operation is aimed, first and foremost, at serving their own economic and governmental interests, thus focusing on northern Sinai, where the gas pipeline passes, and El Arish, the center of Egyptian rule in the peninsula.
The operation has already been partially successful. Bedouins have fled to the high mountain range of central Sinai, knowing that the Egyptian forces will face difficulties fighting them there. It's reasonable to assume that the Thursday's terrorists arrived from that area by car and later by foot.
It's a known fact that offensives provide the best defense. Therefore, Israel should seriously consider demanding that Egypt let the IDF occasionally send forces into central Sinai, to the area near the border, in order to foil attacks and pursue terrorists. At least until the border fence is fully completed. We let them send their forces in, now it's their turn to show some flexibility.
If they refuse, it may be necessary to recruit American pressure on the Egyptian High Military Council to accept the demand or use a firm hand, just like it's doing in northern Sinai.
As for the Israeli side, i.e. the IDF, answers are still required for at least two questions in light of Thursday's events:
- In light of the warning received, why didn't the IDF stop civilian vehicles from travelling along the border without military escort?
- In light of the anarchy in Sinai and the slow process of constructing the border fence, why wasn't the intelligence and lookout deployment on the border reinforced, including with UAV flight day and night? Have we once again fallen into costly complacency?
I have no authorized answers to these questions right now. It's quite possible that the answer is imbedded in the questions themselves.
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