Egypt launches operation to gain control of Sinai

Israeli official: Deployment coordinated with us; move follows Katyusha fire at Eilat; IAF strikes rocket launching cell in Gaza.

Egypt Pipeline Explosion 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt Pipeline Explosion 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt announced Saturday that it was launching an operation in the Sinai Peninsula aimed at restoring the state’s security control in the region, which has been overrun by terrorist and extremist elements since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall last year.
An Israeli official in Jerusalem said the Sinai operation had been coordinated with Israel. It came after a Katyusha rocket was fired from Sinai into Israel before dawn Thursday, exploding in Eilat.
On Saturday evening, IAF aircraft struck a terror cell attempting to fire rockets into Israel from the southern Gaza Strip, according to the IDF Spokesman’s Office. Two Palestinians were injured in the strike, which targeted a motorcycle near Rafah, according to Palestinian sources.
Terrorists in Gaza fired two Kassam rockets towards the Sdot Hanegev Regional Council, near Netivot, in response to the IAF attack early Sunday morning. The rockets exploded in open fields, causing no injuries.
The IAF strike marked the first such action in Gaza since last month, when Palestinians launched more than 200 rockets into southern Israel, prompting a number of Israeli retaliatory strikes.
After the rocket landed in Eilat, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said Israel viewed the attack with gravity and that it had been the work of terrorist organizations operating in the peninsula.
“Anyone who tests us from near or far will find himself facing a strong and smart military prepared to defend Israel and defeat our enemies,” Gantz said.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry said 150 special forces police officers would be deployed in northern Sinai to help increase Egypt’s sovereignty in the region, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported.
The deployment would be aimed specifically at protecting the pipeline in Sinai that delivers natural gas to both Israel and Jordan. Saboteurs have attacked the pipeline 13 times since the uprising against Mubarak began last year.
The police reinforcements were also meant to prevent ambushes on army forces traveling between the cities of El- Arish and Rafah, according to the Egyptian statement.
Police bomb squad personnel in Eilat found the shell of a second Grad rocket just west of the city on Saturday. The rocket had been fired together with a number of others at Eilat on Thursday, when several explosions were heard in the Red Sea resort.
“It had a 122-millimeter diameter. Police found it west of Eilat just outside of the city,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Last week, shortly after the rocket attack, a police bomb squad dispatched to track down rocket blast sites found the remnants of one Grad rocket near residential buildings. It removed the projectile from the scene.
Following the attack, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi revealed that the IDF had thwarted 10 different terrorist plots to attack Israel from Sinai in the past two months.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony for new Military Intelligence officers, Kochavi said that the rocket had been a warning about the changes sweeping the Middle East.
“It could be that the change will bring new opportunities, but in the short term the risks are increasing,” Kochavi said.
The rocket strike on Eilat did not come as a surprise for the IDF, which has been closely tracking Palestinian terrorist activities in Sinai since an attack along the Egyptian border in August left eight Israelis dead. IDF assessments are that the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack were either a Palestinian rocket cell from Gaza – affiliated with either Hamas or Islamic Jihad – or Beduin working for the Gaza-based organizations.
Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak-Halevy said his city would continue functioning as usual despite the attack.
“We have no intention of changing our daily routine,” he told Army Radio. “I call on all Israeli citizens to come enjoy the warm weather in our city this Passover.”
Israel has called on Cairo to increase its efforts to restore order in Sinai and to prevent attacks, but the Egyptian military has held back from dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the peninsula.
In December, The Jerusalem Post reported that Hamas had established rocket production lines in Sinai and was also moving some of its weapons caches there to protect them from Israeli air strikes.
More than a dozen Egyptian army battalions allowed into Sinai with Israel’s permission (required because of limits placed on Egyptian forces there under the peace treaty) are still operating, although with limited success in stopping terrorist activity and arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip.
Ma’an quoted Egyptian security sources as saying Saturday that Israel had agreed to temporarily allow seven more Egyptian army battalions into Sinai to help with the crackdown on terrorist elements.
Yaakov Katz, Tovah Lazaroff and staff contributed to this report.