The Israeli desire to impede ISIS capabilities in Sinai is predictable, but Israel’s collaboration with the Egyptian agreement sheds light on the complete geopolitical realignment of the Middle East and the diminishing resistance to cooperation with Israel in Arab civil society.
According to The New York Times, Israel has launched well over a hundred air strikes within Egyptian national territory. The attacks were approved by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and in some cases may have been requested by Egyptian authorities. The Israeli Air Force has provided and continues to provide direct air support for Egyptian military operations.
In order to hide the attacks from Egyptian public opinion, Israeli aircraft covered their markings and flew via routes that could plausibly be used by the Egyptian Air Force. While neither Israeli nor Egyptian officials are willing to confirm the reports, no one in either country is surprised by these “revelations.”
There has been speculation regarding Israeli drone strikes in Sinai since August 2013. In addition, Israel has long allowed (and even encouraged) Egypt to place forces in the Sinai Peninsula to an extent that technically violates the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of 1979, which called for demilitarization of the peninsula. Several hundred troops entered the demilitarized part of Sinai in 2011, and the number has increased greatly ever since.
Israeli security assistance is needed, as the Egyptian military has been progressively losing its grip on the area for years. It is hard to estimate how many Egyptian soldiers have been killed by various insurgent groups, since official figures are unreliable, but they likely number in the hundreds.
This is a reflection of the increased efficiency of the Sinai Province of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant organization, often known as ISIS. It uses tactics developed by al-Qaeda and perfected by ISIS, such as utilizing suicide bombers backed up by direct and indirect mortar fire to dislodge hardened enemy positions, used in combination with small arms, and several simultaneous assaults.
Israeli security assistance is needed, as the Egyptian military has been progressively losing its grip on Sinai for years. It is hard to estimate how many Egyptian soldiers have been killed by various insurgent groups, but they likely number in the hundreds
Islamic State has even shown a surprising capability to strike within Cairo, most notably by assassinating Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, on June 29, 2015. On another notable occasion, terrorists laid siege to the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, which is in close proximity to the western Israeli border. The attack with the highest international profile was the bombing of a Russian charter jet that exploded in midair over the desert north of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, killing all 224 people aboard.
From the Israeli perspective, the increased influence of ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula is a nightmarish scenario that could continue the deterioration of its border security. After its withdrawal from Lebanon, the hostile Iranian proxy Hezbollah has controlled Israel’s northern border. Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been under the control of Hamas, while the Syrian border is controlled by an unstable coalition of jihadist Islamist groups and may soon also be under indirect Iranian control.
The Egyptian incapacity to restore order in Sinai has left Israel with no choice but to use military means. Unable and uninterested in physically controlling terrorist-controlled areas, Israel cannot even conceive of attempting to resolve the political problems on its borders. Therefore, it has not tried to implement the classic counterinsurgency strategy of “winning hearts and minds,” which calls for extinguishing the motivation behind conflict through a comprehensive political and social approach. Instead, it attempts to obtain a temporary but significant debilitation of enemy capabilities.
Israeli officials have applied an unpleasant euphemism to their counterterrorism strategy in non-occupied areas: “mowing the lawn.” Israeli strikes target the leadership of terrorist groups and the infrastructure that supports them. The rationale is that if even the Arab states cannot restore order on their own territories, there is no way Israel can.
What is more interesting is the Egyptian motivation. The depth of its cooperation reveals a second highly important pillar of the emerging strategic alliance between Israel and the major Sunni Arab states. Aside from a shared interest in containing Iranian influence, both sides are also concerned about the destabilizing effects of Sunni jihadist terrorism.
After all, the attacks are particularly serious from the Egyptian perspective. The Sisi government retook power from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014 under the pretext of restoring stability and security to the nation. As long as it is unable to provide economic well-being and unwilling to deliver civil liberties, a worsening security threat could be fatal for the legitimacy of the military government.
In the past, cooperation between Israel and Egypt would have raised the ire of Egyptian public opinion. Cairo has long pledged its dedication to the Palestinian cause. However, there are indications that security fears in Egypt have changed the perception toward an Egyptian-Israeli alliance. The Egyptian government would never have allowed Israeli attacks on this scale if it were not more concerned about ISIS attacks than damage from public opinion.
In addition, the reaction to the news in the Arab world has not been overwhelming. Although the exact extent of Israeli attacks was not known, the policy was a very badly kept secret.
Dalia Ziada, the founding director of the Liberal Democracy Institute, a liberal think-tank in Cairo, tweeted, “Why they are labeling it as ‘secret’?! It is not! The Egyptian people know about it from day one and we are perfectly fine with it!”
Other Egyptian commentators have confirmed that they have been aware of the policy of allowing Israeli air strikes on sovereign territory for years. While outrage at the move has certainly been expressed, it seems forced and contrived.
Hatred toward Israel, even among the public, is abating as inter-Arab and inter-Islamic schisms take on increased salience. The changed security situation in the Middle East is changing political allegiances in the region more deeply than previously imagined. Arab-Israeli cooperation is no longer taboo, and the long-developing Egyptian-Israeli alliance is now out in the open.