Islamic State on Thursday claimed firing several Grad rockets against the resort city of Eilat the previous night by its Sinai affiliate known as Sinai Province. The terrorists said the barrage came “in order to teach the Jews and the Crusaders that a proxy war will not avail them of anything,” and threatened future “calamitous” attacks.
Israel has not retaliated, trusting that Egypt’s military would do so instead.
Israel has a 240-kilometer border with Sinai and since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi rose to power in 2014, Cairo and Jerusalem have been closely cooperating in the peninsula in the fight against ISIS-affiliated terrorists.
An Israeli strike in Sinai would be a violation of Egyptian sovereignty, and with Cairo currently Israel’s most important regional ally, Jerusalem cannot risk jeopardizing these ties.
Sisi has waged extensive military operations against Sinai Province, which despite its small size is one of the most effective ISIS franchises outside Syria and Iraq. The group carries out deadly attacks on Egyptian security forces on an almost daily basis.
The exact nature of the cooperation is a closely guarded secret, but a former senior Israeli official told Bloomberg News in July that Israel had carried out drone strikes “with Egypt’s knowledge and blessing” against terrorists in the restive peninsula.
The militaries of the two countries meet regularly to exchange intelligence in the fight against ISIS.
According to Zack Gold, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center, the rocket barrage “shows an intelligence failure on the part of both Israel and Egypt and an operational failure on the part of Egypt. It’s concerning that militants were able to travel hundreds of miles to carry out an attack againstEilat.”
ISIS threatens to 'uproot the Jewish state'
A recent infographic released by ISIS shows the jihadist group operating in El-Arish, Bir el-Abd and Sheikh Zuweid in the northern Sinai Peninsula bordering the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, where fighters and weapons as well as other supplies are routinely smuggled across in tunnels.
But, according to Michael Horowitz, director of intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle Eastbased geopolitical consultancy, “ISIS has been increasingly active outside of its main area of operation, namely the border with Gaza, and operates from several mountainous areas within central Sinai.”
Lt.-Col. (res.) Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the relationship between ISIS and Hamas is a “known fact... However these relationships have ups and downs and in recent months there have been a lot of friction,” in part due to the pressure put on Hamas by Egypt.
Schweitzer pointed to the recent speech by the new “emir” of ISIS in Sinai, Abu Hajer al-Hashemi, who called Hamas “murtads” or collaborators with Israel and Egypt.
According to Horowitz, the timing of the attack may not only be linked to military cooperation between Egypt and Israel, but may be tied to the situation in the Gaza Strip and the relationship between Hamas and Sinai Province.
“ISIS could be attempting to boost its popularity in the Gaza Strip and get back at Hamas for its rapprochement with Egypt,” he said, adding that “in the same way that the Salafi-jihadist group fires missiles from the Gaza Strip in the hope of prompting an Israeli reaction against Hamas, ISIS could be trying to prompt a harsher response from Israel or Egypt at the border with Sinai, including against smuggling networks which Hamas still relies upon.”
According to Gold, both Cairo and Jerusalem are aware of the link between Hamas and ISIS in Sinai, but “Egypt and Israel have had differing opinion on what to do with Hamas. Egypt is right now moving toward reconciliation with Hamas, but they are just one large-scale jihadist attack away for that to stop.”
While Israel is not Sinai Province’s principal target, and incidents along the Israel-Egypt border are rare, there have been several attacks, some deadly, in recent years. Those attacks are a reminder of the threat that the terrorist group continues to pose to Israel.
According to both Gold and Horowitz, the threat of rockets attacks by ISIS in Sinai is not the biggest concern, as the Iron Dome system is able to intercept rockets, as it did on Wednesday night when it destroyed three of the four rockets fired. The threat of a commando-style infiltration raid by the group to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers, and the threat of an anti-tank or anti-aircraft missile attack are more worrisome.
According to Horowitz, “Israel is and should be concerned by the threat ISIS pose in Sinai, but it is far from a strategic threat, as is the case for example with Hezbollah.
It is quite unlikely that the group will shift its focus from striking the Egyptian military to Israel.
“With ISIS’s Sinai Province facing a significant and prolonged counterinsurgency campaign from the Egyptian side, it cannot afford a direct confrontation with Israel.”
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