Although most terrorists and the masterminds behind them have been killed, the damage they inflicted on Israel has ramifications that go beyond the actual attack near the Egypt-Israel border. The escalation in Gaza and southern Israel and the diplomatic row with the new Egyptian leadership have turned the operation into a diplomatic incident whose end we have yet to see.
Israel must now embark on a number of military and diplomatic initiatives that would serve two long-term and vital Israeli interests:
- To prevent a snowball effect as far as relations with the new Egyptian regime go, in an attempt to safeguard the peace treaty and enhance the security cooperation with Egyptian army forces deployed in Sinai.
- To boost the deterrence in Gaza and to establish new ground rules that would curb Palestinian operations from Sinai and help secure an extended period of calm in the south, or at the very least until after September
The most important and urgent strategic goal involves Egypt. The temporary government in Cairo, probably in coordination with the Supreme Military Council, announced Saturday a series of diplomatic steps against Israel in response to what it called the killing of Egyptian soldiers. At first, these steps seemed harsh and indeed the decision to recall its envoy was canceled a day later.
Cairo summoned the Israeli ambassador to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and demanded that the Israeli government apologize for remarks made by ministers and Knesset members. Israeli officials and legislators had argued that Egypt was at the very least partially responsible for the terrorist attacks and the death of its own soldiers on the border, because it had lost control in Sinai and because its soldiers demonstrated such helplessness on the ground during the attack.
Some view these steps as an Egyptian attempt to imitate the "Turkish model" and the demands by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan following the 2010 flotilla incident. But a closer look reveals that Egypt does not seek to humiliate Israel, only to present a tougher stance vis-à-vis Jerusalem. The reason for this is Egypt's desire to deflect the pressures exerted on it by Israel's political enemies, who are relishing the death of the Egyptian soldiers in the media.
As far as the demand for an apology – Israel should not have a problem with such request. While apologizing, Israel could stress that as a democracy, it cannot compromise its politicians' freedom of speech and at the same time distance itself from their statements, clarifying that they do not reflect the government's positions. Sometimes it pays to be smart, not only right, especially when it comes to such an important Israeli interest like the peace treaty with Egypt and the defense cooperation that comes along with it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak should be commended for expressing Israel's regret over the incident without taking responsibility for it.
Egyptian Chief of Staff Sami Annan has already been to the scene of Thursday's clashes and he, at the very least, has some knowledge on the death of his forces. Relevant information was handed over by GOC Southern Command Tal Rousso and Division Commander Tamir Yadi who met with senior Egyptian officers. There is reason to believe that at least one Egyptian officer and two soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in their midst while an explosive device planted in the area also exploded. In addition, several Egyptian soldiers were hurt in the crossfire with the IDF after the terrorists fired at Israeli forces only several meters away from the Egyptian position.
Growing anti-Israel sentiment
All of the above cannot change the basic fact that the Egyptian revolution brought about more anti-Israel sentiment and that this sentiment has had an effect on the government. But the situation is not a lost cause. The tight relations Israel and Egypt have with the US, together with Egypt's military and economic dependence on Washington – a dependence that only deepened in the post-revolution era – present a strong counter-measure that prevents Egypt from a complete reshuffling of its cards. American diplomacy has already been in action to prevent a further deterioration in the ties between Jerusalem and Cairo and it is likely that these efforts will bear fruit in the coming days.
Israel must resolutely seek ways that would result in Egypt rehabilitating its security hold in Sinai, with focus on the border with Israel. Jerusalem may have to agree to a boost in the Egyptian military presence in the peninsula by one or two infantry battalions or commando units, without artillery or other heavy weaponry.
Israel must also find creative ways to better monitor terrorist activity and weapons smuggling in the border region. This should of course be done with Egypt's blessing and without harming its sovereignty and national pride.
When it comes to the Gaza theater, Israel has also begun to take action. The successful wave of targeted assassinations carried out by the IDF and the Shin Bet by orders of the prime minister and defense minister only hours after the attacks, was meant not only for the sake of revenge. The strikes were also an operational opportunity exploited at great timing. The surgical strikes were meant to make it clear to the terrorist organizations that the rules of the game have changed.
Unlike the past, the IDF will, from now on, retaliate for attacks from Sinai just as it has when they came out of Gaza. A lack of resolute response by the IDF to hostile acts in Sinai resulted in Hamas and other terror groups believing that terrorist operations from Sinai were legitimate and would draw punishment. This state of affairs is now over. It is likely that in the coming days we will see further demonstrations of this new rule.
The new policy does not ensure that attacks from Sinai would stop. Its implementation is dependent on high-quality intelligence on what is brewing in Gaza. We must also remember that in Sinai there are other Jihadist groups that are not controlled by elements in Gaza. Exacting price tag on operations from Sinai can gradually reduce the use of this course of action.
The IDF is also operating from the air, selectively targeting Hamas installations in an attempt to convey a message to the terrorist organization in charge of Gaza that any escalation would cost it dearly, even if Hamas is not directly involved. The goal is to prompt the Hamas government to tighten its supervision of the rebellious factions, to use force to prevent them from launching attacks against Israel and mainly to stop turning a blind eye to their activities.
Hamas responsible for terror
Hamas knows that if it decides to prevent these factions from targeting Israel, they could turn against it and undermine the group's rule in Gaza. That is why it forbids these groups to launch rockets or mortar shells and even arrests their operatives. But on the other hand, from time to time, it also turns a blind eye and allows them to blow off steam.
There is no doubt that Hamas is indirectly responsible for Thursday's attacks. Not only because it controls Gaza but also because its leadership holds regular briefings and coordination meetings with heads of the Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees.
It is likely that such a meeting was held a short while before the latest attack. It is also known that Hamas keeps a very close eye on everything that enters or leaves Gaza via the Philadelphi route tunnels.
It is also safe to assume that Hamas had at least a general knowledge of the attack. It did not prevent it and therefore bears the responsibility.
As things stand, all sides in the current escalation – Israel, Egypt and Hamas – have an interest in restoring the relative calm. It is therefore likely that in a few days' time, the tensions will subside. That is when Israel and the IDF will have to draw lessons from the crisis. As always, a bitter dispute will erupt between Treasury officials and the defense establishment on the budgetary supplement required for two projects that would change the situation in the south at its core: Completing the border fence with Egypt and acquiring four more Iron Dome missile batteries in the coming year.
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