x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sinai a tie that binds Egypt and Israel

The Israeli government's silence over the weekend about a rocket strike on Friday that killed four militants in the Sinai Peninsula is unusual – and telling. Analysis by Hugh Naylor in Ramallah

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, US President Jimmy Carter, centre, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands outside the White House on March 26, 1979 after signing a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, US President Jimmy Carter, centre, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands outside the White House on March 26, 1979 after signing a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

RAMALLAH // For a journalist, Israel is a pleasantly verbose place to work.

Israeli officials, experts at handling and spinning the news, are available almost any time to supply a comment or reaction, on or off the record.

Which is why the Israeli government's silence over the weekend about a rocket strike on Friday that killed four militants in the Sinai Peninsula was unusual - and telling.

In the hours following the attack, the Israeli military said it was "looking into the report", even as unnamed security officials in Cairo said Israel had fired a missile from an unmanned drone that killed the militants, members of a group calling itself Ansar Beit Al Maqdis.

Because of the fear that it would appear the Egyptian military had allowed the Israeli aircraft into Egyptian air space to carry out the attack, these unnamed Egyptian officials were quickly contradicted by Egyptian state media, which said Egyptian forces had launched the air strike.

Colonel Ahmed Aly, a military spokesman, was emphatic. He said there was "no truth whatsoever to any Israeli strikes inside Egyptian territory".

In Israel's final word on the subject - which, at least as far as responsibility for the attack was concerned, was really no word at all - the defence minister of Israel, Moshe Yaalon, said late on Saturday that he would not let "rumours and speculation" harm the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Mr Yaalon's refusal to say anything more publicly was a carefully crafted piece of ambiguity.

With most analysts here assuming that Israel did carry out the strike, Israel managed to help ease the embarrassment of its besieged ally in Cairo yet send a powerful message that it will go virtually to any lengths to protect its borders from infiltration by Islamist militants, regardless of its neighbour's sensibilities about national sovereignty.

Egypt's awkward about-face and Israel's calculated silence are a measure of the worries that pervade the security establishments in Egypt and Israel - as political turmoil continues in Cairo and an insurgency simmers in the Sinai Peninsula - over the vast swathe of desert and mountains between the two countries where authorities in Cairo have never been able to assert much control.

The peace treaty is valuable for Israel and important for Egypt's military, which is the main recipient of Dh4.8 billion in US aid pledged under the deal.

But most of the Egyptian public is contemptuous of the treaty so any suggestion that the Egyptian security officials cooperated with Israel - or, worse yet, were not even informed about it - could spark even more unrest in Cairo's streets.

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Amos Harel, an expert on Israeli military issues, said that without Israeli confirmation, "it is difficult to know - assuming it was an Israeli attack - whether Jerusalem had informed Cairo of its intention".

Shmuel Bar, a security analyst, said military coordination between Egypt and Israel has probably increased since the coup on July 3 that deposed the Islamist president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi.

Mr Bar said Israel had feared sharing intelligence with Egypt's military when Mr Morsi was in power out of fear that information would be passed on to Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

"If you have information and this goes to a military under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and the Brotherhood alerts Hamas about it, that compromises intelligence and it gets sources killed," he said.

Colonel Aly said yesterday that Egyptian air strikes overnight against a "terrorist group" responsible for killing police and army troops in the northern Sinai had left 25 dead and injured. "There is no truth whatsoever to any Israeli strikes inside Egyptian territory and the claim that there is Egyptian and Israeli coordination on the matter is utterly baseless," he said.

Israel had no comment on the report.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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