The Corner

Rockets from Sinai

The rocket fired from Sinai at the southernmost Israeli city, Eilat, was aimed equally at Cairo and Jerusalem.

The Egyptian military and the government of Israel have long had a common interest in maintaining order and fighting terrorism in Sinai. There were terrorist bombings in 2004 and 2006, and the Bedouin tribesmen have always had a strained relationship with the government in Cairo. Smuggling is the main economic activity of many Bedouin, and there are few economic alternatives for them (despite repeated promises from former President Mubarak over the years). Since the overthrow of Mubarak things have gotten worse, and in January a French tourist was killed by robbers in Sharm el-Sheik, Sinai’s tourist Mecca (pardon the expression). Crime in the entire region has been growing, as has terrorism: For example, the pipeline carrying natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan has been blown up an amazing thirteen times in the past year.

Egypt’s military is concerned about survival these days as it confronts the increasing appetite for power shown by the Muslim Brotherhood. A crusade (pardon that expression, too) against terrorism and crime in Sinai does not appear to be in the cards. But the military maintain correct relations with Israel, want the peace treaty to be honored, and want American aid to be continued.

Rockets fired into Israel threaten all those goals. They obviously create Israeli-Egyptian tensions, and if the Egyptian military and police cannot stop such attacks Israel will feel forced to act. Fortunately no one was injured in this attack; the rocket fell on a construction site. But the next one might hit a hotel or a school, and then denunciations cannot be Israel’s only response. Israel is building a security fence along the border with Sinai, much like the one that separates it from the West Bank, but that of course will not stop rockets — nor will it stop every terrorist attack on the ground. Last August, terrorists killed eight Israelis near Eilat and wounded 30 in four separate attacks. When Israeli forces chased the gunmen back to the border, six Egyptian police were killed in the crossfire — for which Israel later apologized. But the incident sparked a crisis in bilateral relations, with Egyptian politicians denouncing Israel and demanding that the peace treaty be ended. Al-Ahram, the largest circulation newspaper in Egypt, accused Israel of planning the attack: “He errs who thinks that the events in Sinai were not premeditated by Israel,” an editorial said.

So the terrorists want to kill Israelis, and kill Egyptian-Israeli relations. And there is no reason to think Egypt has the ability or willpower to stop them. Reacting to this week’s incident, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said “Sinai is turning into a rocket launching pad for terrorists. . . .We will strike those who aim to harm us.” But Mahmoud El-Hefnawy, Egypt’s director of security for Sinai, said the rocket fire did not come from Sinai and assured the press that “the situation in the southern sector is excellent.” Egyptian officials are putting their heads in the sand (pardon that expression, too) of Sinai in an effort to make believe crime and terrorism there are not a growing challenge. That will leave the terrorists free to attack again, unless Israeli stops, captures, or kills them — which will create the next crisis between Cairo and Jerusalem. Israel’s officials know that and they do not wish to violate Egyptian sovereignty, but they will not leave the population in Eilat as terrorist targets. Good relations with Egypt are a high priority, but preventing terror is even higher.

Elliott Abrams was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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