What's behind the Egyptian-Israeli cooperation in Sinai?

A recent New York Times report left many questions unanswered: find them here.

An Egyptian military vehicle is seen on the highway in northern Sinai, Egypt, May 25, 2015. (photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
An Egyptian military vehicle is seen on the highway in northern Sinai, Egypt, May 25, 2015.
(photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
For more than two years “unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 air strikes,” claims a report in Saturday’s New York Times. This report reveals what has been quietly rumored for years. It also provides more evidence for the unprecedented levels of security cooperation that have developed between Egypt and Israel. However, the report also leads to many questions about what is happening in Sinai.
What does the report say?
According to the article Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes in Sinai with the approval of Egyptian authorities. “American officials say Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the militants.” The article asserts that the air strikes are one reason northern Sinai is a closed military zone. The report points out that the ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Sinai have carried out numerous attacks recently, including against Christians and murdering 311 people at a Sufi mosque last year.
Weren’t there already reports about this?
On February 5 of last year ISIS members were killed in northern Sinai by an alleged drone strike and ISIS media blamed the attack on Israel. In April a drone fired two missiles at a house and a vehicle. The Jerusalem Post reported at the time that “the IDF has not commented on the claim, but Israel is reported to have carried out drone strikes with Egypt’s knowledge.” In October, Zaher Abu Sitta, an ISIS commander, was killed in a drone strike. ISIS’s Amaq news agency alleged that Israel carried it out.
How controversial is this report in Egypt?
Egypt considers any claims that Israel is carrying out strikes in Sinai with extreme sensitivity. Writing for the Daily News Egypt website in February 2017, Taha Sakr claimed that former Egyptian intelligence officials told him that, “Israel will not be able to respond to the rockets fired from Sinai against its territories because of the peace treaty signed in 1979.” Furthermore, “Egypt will not allow such a course of action.”
Over the years Egyptian media has reported about claims that Israel had plans to pressure Egypt to cede part of Sinai to the Palestinians. These claims were reported in 2010 in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm and seem to make their rounds every year. A June 2017 report by Yoram Schweitzer and Ofir Winter at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) noted that “Egyptian official media has even accused Israel of aiding in the terror against Egypt.”
Major media in Egypt attempted to ignore the story on Sunday; neither did Egyptian officials comment on the report. Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy wrote on Twitter to remind viewers that she had written a column in November arguing that Egypt was “failing to deal with its ISIS insurgency.” Any suggestion that Egypt therefore needs Israel’s “help” to fight the insurgents would be a blow to national pride and the Egyptian army, which is a central state institution.
What are Israel’s concerns about Sinai terror?
Since 2000 there have been a series of terror threats from Sinai or against Israelis in Sinai. In 2004 Taba, on the border near Eilat was bombed, and in 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh was bombed, killing 100 people in total. Terror from Sinai has included Palestinians, local Bedouin, Al-Qaeda and now ISIS-affiliate groups. In February 2014 a bus carrying pilgrims to Israel was bombed in Sinai. In July 2015, ISIS used a Kornet anti-tank missile to target an Egyptian ship. In October 2015, Metrojet Flight 9268 was downed, showing that the terrorists who allegedly bombed it were becoming more sophisticated.
According to Zachary Laub of the Council on Foreign Relations, high quality weapons from Libya and Sudan made their way to the Sinai Peninsula after the 2011 Libyan war.
The presence of more weapons and jihadists in Sinai led to attacks on pipelines, Sufi shrines, and Israel and Egyptian security forces. In August 2011 a cross-border raid killed eight Israelis and five Egyptian soldiers. Egypt began sending more soldiers into Sinai – first 1,500 soldiers in 2011 and then two more infantry battalions in 2013 and 2014, all under agreement with Israel. Armored convoys also moved into Sinai. These were ostensibly in violation of the 1979 peace treaty, but Israel agreed to the deployment.
In 2013 Egypt launched a massive operation called ‘Desert Storm’ to break the back of the terrorists. Nevertheless the threats continued. In February, April and October rockets were launched from Sinai at Israel from the south in Eilat to the north in the Eshkol region.
The increased threats and sophisticated attacks carried out by the insurgents have encouraged closer cooperation between Israel and Egypt. The security interests of the two states also dovetail on threats emanating from Gaza.
The best of both worlds: Israel’s tech, Egypt’s muscle?
Over the last year Egypt has increased its anti-terror operations in response to threats. In mid-January it launched a curfew of north Sinai as part of its strategy. According to media reports, at least 172 terrorists were killed in Sinai in 2017 while almost 100 Egyptian soldiers and police have lost their lives, as did about 500 civilians.
Media reports note that Israel looks favorably on Egypt’s stepped-up campaign. The INSS report notes that, if confirmed, reports indicate that “the level of trust between the nations has reached the point where Israel is providing various military, technological and operational intelligence to Egypt and is operating attack UAVs in Sinai with Cairo’s approval.”
This would indicate that to fight the insurgency the Egyptians are doing the ground work while Israel is aiding in intelligence and allegedly using drones. This doesn’t necessarily mean Israeli drones or aircraft would have to violate Egyptian air space to fire missiles. According to Oded Berkowitz, Regional Director of Intelligence and a Senior Analyst at MAX Security Solutions, “Israel always prefers to rely on itself and not on others” and there is “no evidence or indication that Israel provided close air support for Egyptian troops.”
Who is asking who for help?
Much of the story of the Sinai anti-terror war is still unknown. The just-reported number of strikes in Sinai is 100 in the last two years, and Israel’s Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel revealed in August that there were 100 strikes against Syria in five years. However the types of strikes that allegedly took place are different. Reported strikes in Sinai target individuals or several terrorists in a vehicle, while in Syria the reported strikes target whole bases and infrastructure as well as convoys of weapons.
The two battlefields are also very different because the Sinai strikes are alleged to take place in close cooperation with Egypt. That leads to a question of who is asking whom for help. Are the targets only those that pose a threat to Israel or is this an attempt to aid Egypt?
Anna Ahronheim contributed to this analysis.