The diplomatic imbroglio with Egypt sparked by Thursday’s terror attack near Eilat makes one thing crystal clear: The price of Israel’s decision to tolerate a terrorist quasi-state on its southern border has just gotten a lot higher. Before, terror from Gaza merely threatened the lives and peace of residents of the south. Now, it also threatens Israel’s peace with Egypt – and devastating though Palestinian rocket attacks are, war with Egypt would be a whole lot worse.
The trend to make Israel apologize for being attacked
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, terrorists have enjoyed free rein in Sinai. As former ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel noted, even retired Egyptian generals have begun raising the alarm about this situation. But you don’t have to be a general to see that the problem exists; it’s patently obvious.
Over the last six months, for instance, five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline have kept it almost permanently shut, thereby depriving Israel of gas and Egypt of badly needed foreign currency. This compares to zero successful attacks in the three years between the pipeline’s 2008 opening and the start of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011. Even worse, Thursday’s cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it. The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.
I’ve argued elsewhere
that this may be deliberate policy on Cairo’s part. But from Israel’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether the upsurge of terror in Sinai is due to deliberate policy or simple incompetence: Either way, it poses a grave threat.
Unlike the pipeline attacks, to which Israel can and should respond merely by finding a new gas supplier, terror attacks on its own territory and citizens necessitate military action to repel them. Hence every such attack could potentially spark clashes with Egyptian troops along the border, just as last Thursday’s did: Distinguishing terrorists from Egyptian soldiers will always be difficult in the heat of battle, even if the terrorists don’t complicate matters by wearing what eyewitnesses described as Egyptian army uniforms.
And this is where Gaza comes in – because it’s only the Palestinian terror organizations in Gaza that actually have an interest in such cross-border attacks. The Sinai Bedouin who perpetrated most of the other attacks of the last six months may not love Israel, but their primary target is the regime in Cairo. That’s precisely why all their attacks targeted symbols of Egypt’s central government, such as the pipeline (which also supplies Jordan) and the El-Arish police station, rather than targets inside Israel.
Thursday’s attack, in contrast, was perpetrated by Palestinians who crossed into Sinai from Hamas-run Gaza via the smuggling tunnels. And they have every incentive to keep perpetrating such attacks, because this one succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: It killed and wounded many Israelis; it created a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt; and it doesn’t appear to have endangered Hamas’s own relationship with Egypt in the slightest.
That last is critical, because Hamas is highly dependent on Cairo: Not only is Egypt Gaza’s gateway to the world, but Hamas’s current patron, the Assad regime in Syria, may not survive, and Cairo has been demonstrating interest in taking over the job (see, for instance, its lifting of the Egyptian blockade on Gaza, or the rampant increase
it has allowed in arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza). Hence had Egypt objected to the Palestinians staging a cross-border attack on Israel from its territory, Hamas might well think twice about permitting another one.
But so far, Cairo hasn’t uttered a peep about the Palestinians’ use of its territory to attack Israel. Instead, it has directed all its ire at Israel – not only for erroneously killing its soldiers, but for daring to shoot back at terrorists who were firing over the border from Sinai, for launching retaliatory airstrikes on the terrorists’ leaders in Gaza (further evidence that it’s auditioning for the role of Hamas’s new patron), and even for stating the obvious out loud: It was furious over Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s statement
that Egypt is “losing its grip” on Sinai. When coupled with the weekend’s anti-Israel demonstrations in Egypt and the calls by Egyptian presidential contenders for suspending or even abrogating relations with Israel, all this sends a clear message: Hamas can continue allowing Gazan terrorists to attack Israel via Sinai without any danger to its own relationship with Cairo.
Hence Israel now faces a stark choice: Either it gets rid of the terrorist enclave in Gaza, or it will suffer more and more cross-border attacks from Sinai that will cause more and more inadvertent Egyptian casualties, with devastating consequences for Israeli-Egyptian peace.
Clearly, all-out war on Hamas in Gaza would have also serious negative consequences: Israeli casualties, massive international condemnation and, given Cairo’s new role as Hamas’s patron, quite possibly even the severance of Egypt’s relations with Israel.
But while Egypt might sever relations over Gaza, it won’t go to war over it. In contrast, continued cross-border fighting between Israel and Egypt, with a growing body count on both sides, really could spark an Israeli-Egyptian war.
And if Israel must fight, war with Hamas is far better than war with Egypt. Not only would the latter be far more devastating, but Israel has nothing to gain from fighting Egypt. War with Hamas, in contrast, at least offers the prospect of a strategic benefit to offset its costs: finally abolishing the terrorist enclave on Israel’s border. The writer is a journalist and commentator.