Analysis: Israel’s options in Sinai are limited

Rocket fire from Egypt into Eilat did not come as a surprise to the defense establishment, but it has no clear response to it.

Benny Gantz, helicopter_311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Benny Gantz, helicopter_311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
The rocket fire from the Sinai late Wednesday night did not come as a surprise for the defense establishment.
For months now, the IDF has been tracking Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist activity in the Sinai, and there have been reports that the organizations have established rocket production lines in Egyptian territory and even moved some of their weapons caches there.
The groups’ rationale has been simple – in Gaza the weapons are targets for Israeli air strikes. In Egypt, though, Israel cannot bomb them.
“This is exactly the dilemma we are currently facing,” a senior defense official said. “If we spot a rocket squad in the Sinai, do we attack or not? If we attack, we are accused of violating Egyptian sovereignty, and if we don’t attack, then a rocket lands in Israel.”
Israeli assessments are that it was either a Palestinian terrorist group behind the rocket fire, or it was local Egyptian Beduin who operate as “freelancers” for Gaza-based terrorist organizations.
These same Beduin were behind the August attack near the Netafim Crossing that killed eight Israelis.
Israel predicts that as the fence along the border is completed, the threat of rocket fire will increase.
A similar process took place in the Gaza Strip, around which the IDF has erected one of the most sophisticated security barriers in the world, making it virtually impossible for terrorists to cross directly from Gaza into Israel. As a result, they focus on rocket fire instead.
“Now, with the Egyptian border still open, there is still a possibility for terror infiltrations,” a senior IDF officer explained recently. “But once the fence is completed and infiltrations become too difficult, these groups will likely invest in rocket fire instead.”
In the absence of a real military solution, Israel will, for the time being, focus on diplomacy and getting the Egyptians to try and restore order to the Sinai.
But right now the Egyptian military is far more focused on events in Cairo than in the faraway deserts of the peninsula.
This does not mean that the Egyptian military is unaware of the threat. On the contrary, it is very aware, and for that reason, for example, it recently reinforced some of its borderline positions to protect against terrorist elements in the Sinai.
Israel is likely to try and get the United States to pressure the military to crack down on the Beduin in the peninsula and to try and prevent Palestinians from crossing in from the Gaza Strip.
In March, the Obama administration released $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt despite Cairo’s failure to meet pro-democracy goals and despite the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel did not actively lobby against the release of the funds, but could do so next time.
This, however, would get complicated, since through its aid, the US retains some influence in Cairo. If it stopped the aid, its influence would also come to an end.
In the meantime, the IDF is considering connecting Eilat to the early-warning air siren system that operates relatively effectively throughout the South. Another possibility would be to deploy an Iron Dome battery near Eilat, although that prospect is still unlikely.
Israel will also likely focus its response to the rocket attack against terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, even if they were not directly behind the rocket fire.
But with the first night of Passover falling on Friday, air strikes in Gaza could mean that residents of the South will need to hold their Seders in bomb shelters.