Netanyahu’s growing alarm as terror attacks inch towards Israel
But Netanyahu’s concern was not only for those killed and their families. He and his security establishment have been watching with increasing alarm Egypt’s ongoing battle to contain terror groups that are inching their way closer to Israel’s southern border. Just last month two rockets were fired from the Sinai Peninsula at Israeli communities.
Like in the mosque attack last Friday, no one claimed responsibility but it is widely believed Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State’s (IS) affiliate in the Peninsula, was behind them both. The group has been waging a bloody war against Egyptian security for years and on multiple occasions has launched rockets at Israeli communities, including Eilat.
It is not clear whether Israel is a specific target. Or is it, as is happening on Israel’s northern border, spillover fire from the fighting between Egyptian troops and the IS? Analysts I talk to believe the rockets are deliberately aimed at Israel, but are more a propaganda exercise than any serious attempt to start a war with the Jewish State.
Regardless, attacks in, and from, Sinai are happening more frequently. Last Friday’s mosque assault was the second in just over a month. At the end of October, more than 50 Egyptian policemen were ambushed and killed at a Muslim Brotherhood hideout. It was one of the worst losses of life for Egyptian security forces in years.
In an attempt to calm his nervous population, in a televised address, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, promised that operations against terrorist groups operating in the Sinai would become more brutal. But proclamations aside, Netanyahu is also becoming frustrated at the seemingly lack of progress the Egyptians are making in tackling terror. It’s no secret Cairo receives American technology and Israeli intelligence – and in great supply.
Egypt has long been one of Washington’s closest allies in the region and receives millions of US dollars in military aid each year. US President Donald Trump announced a “resetting” of relations between the countries in stark contrast to his predecessor Barack Obama who froze aid to Egypt for two years after el-Sisi, then an army general, overthrew former Egyptian president, Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, back in 2013.
As for Israeli assistance, since 2013 Israel has allowed additional Egyptian forces in the Sinai, beyond the numbers permitted under the 1979 peace accord between the countries. Foreign media reports suggest that Israel has also been carrying out drone strikes against extremists operating in the Sinai with the knowledge and blessing of Cairo. Israeli officials have kept quiet on this issue.
On the positive side, the fact that Israel has allowed Egyptian tanks and artillery to be brought into the Peninsula to fight IS, shows that Jerusalem is not worried they will be used against her. Egypt and Israel are also likely to increase their intelligence sharing after last Friday’s attack.
After all, they have the same goal: to defeat the same terrorist groups. For the Israelis, el-Sisi’s regime is a pragmatic, stable one in a volatile region, one she can rely on alongside Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
But the latest developments beg the question as to whether the Egyptian forces are up to the mark. The fact that such a large attack was carried out under their noses, underlines huge flaws in their security, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism efforts.
From their side, senior Egyptian officials insist patience is needed and claim they’ve all but stopped underground trafficking of terrorists between Gaza and Sinai, which is a noteworthy achievement. They also boast that they’ve managed to get some of the Sinai Bedouin tribes to help in the fight against extremist groups.
It’s worth noting that last Friday’s attack happened in a territory where the dominant tribe had refused to co-operate with IS. This is why there is some speculation that the jihadists targeted this mosque. The worshippers were also Sufi and IS has not shied away from saying their “first priority” is to combat polytheism, the belief in more than one god, and have given Sufism as an example.
Since coming to power four years ago, el-Sisi prioritised the fight against terror. However, the cold reality is that in this time such attacks have grown more frequent and deadly.
Whether Wilayat Sinai carried out this assault or not, the group will benefit from the perception that it did. Is there more that Israel and America can do to help Egypt? Or is the problem, as some analysts suggest, with the Egyptian security forces themselves?
These forces have been criticised for being sluggish and slow to act, and some say it doesn’t matter how much money and guns are thrown at them.
For Netanyahu, watching across the border, these questions just add to his growing alarm.
Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of Russia Today (RT), the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.