Egyptian jets strike in Sinai for 1st time since ’73 war

Israel, in ongoing discussions with Cairo, does not say actions violate treaty

Sinai border fence 370 (photo credit: Reuters/ BAZ RATNER)
Sinai border fence 370
(photo credit: Reuters/ BAZ RATNER)
Egyptian aircraft struck targets near the border with Israel on Wednesday and troops raided villages as a crackdown began on Islamists blamed for a deadly attack on Egyptian border police.
Israel, urging Egypt to deal with a growing threat in the peninsula, voiced approval of the security sweep, the biggest military assault there since the Yom Kippur War 39 years ago. It was also the first time since then that the Egyptians have flown sorties over Sinai.
One Israeli government official said there was “ongoing communication” between the two countries, “as stipulated in the [1979 Camp David] peace treaty.”
The official said Israel did not say that the sorties were in violation of the treaty, although the accords carefully and exactly stipulate what types of forces Egypt can bring into Sinai, and where. Under those accords, four security zones were established – three in Sinai, and one in Israel along the international border – with limitations on military forces and equipment within each zone.
“What we see in Egypt is a strong fury, a determination of the regime and the army to take care of it and impose order in Sinai because that is their responsibility,” Defense Ministry Diplomatic and Security Bureau head Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad said in an Israel Radio interview on Wednesday.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said Sunday’s cross-border terrorist attack served to “remind us of the dangers existent in the instability of the Middle East.”
Speaking at a ceremony honoring graduates of the army’s Command and Staff College in Glilot, Gantz said the attack had been “thwarted by IDF forces, swiftly and powerfully, with the aid of precise intelligence, as well as a skilled and prepared operational force.” He said terrorist organizations would continue their attempts to attack Israelis and that the IDF must remain alert and prepared to handle such attacks.
The Egyptian air strikes around the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, 10 km. from the Gaza Strip, followed clashes overnight between armed men and security forces at several checkpoints in the northern Sinai.
Terrorists killed 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday, in the bloodiest attack on security forces in Sinai since the 1979 peace treaty. The attackers stormed through the border into Israel, and IDF soldiers then killed them.
Jerusalem has said repeatedly that it wants Egypt to take more aggressive action against terrorists using Sinai as a springboard for attacks on Israel. Jerusalem is, however, walking a tightrope between wanting to see Cairo take more action, and not wanting to re-open the treaty or to allow heavy weaponry in Sinai that could later be used against Israel.
Last year, Israel granted the Egyptians permission to introduce an additional seven battalions into Sinai; the Egyptians did not move that many into the peninsula. Before Sunday’s attack, senior Israeli officials consistently said that the problem was not that the Egyptians did not have enough troops or fire-power in Sinai, but rather that they were not using them aggressively enough against the terrorists.
The terrorists, with their strongholds in northern Sinai, have stepped up their actions there since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
While the Egyptian army promised retribution for Sunday’s attacks and brought in 500 additional soldiers and police, there was no crackdown until Tuesday night, after armed men opened fire on several checkpoints in El- Arish, the security and administrative center for northern Sinai.
Gunmen also attacked checkpoints in Rafah, Egypt’s entry point into the Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday morning, witnesses in Sheikh Zuwaid said two Egyptian Air Force planes flew over the area and that they heard explosions.
Other people near the town said they saw three cars bombed.
Egypt’s military leadership said ground and air units had begun to restore stability in Sinai. “The forces were able to execute the plan successfully.
The forces will continue the plan and call on tribes and families of Sinai to cooperate in the restoration of security,” it said.
Troops entered Al-Toumah village, 20 km. to the south, acting on information that terrorists were staying there, army commanders in Sinai said. One commander said 20 were killed.
A villager said he saw military helicopters chasing vehicles out of Al-Toumah and heard rocket fire. The men in the cars fired back with machine guns, he said. An army general in Al-Toumah said helicopters destroyed three vans the gunmen used in an attempt to escape.
The military response focused on Sheikh Zuwaid, a mud-brick settlement that relies heavily on profits from smuggling goods and people through tunnels into Gaza.
Egypt said those responsible for Sunday’s attack arrived via the tunnels from the Gaza Strip. Cairo began work to seal them off on Tuesday.
Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said the situation would force Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s administration to deepen contacts with Israel over security – a step he had hoped to avoid – and restrict contacts with Hamas.
The Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said there was no evidence Gazans were involved in the latest violence.
The current security sweep revives memories of mass arrests after bombings of tourist areas of South Sinai in 2003 and 2005. “People have been cooperative...
but a repetition of such acts would stoke their anger and you cannot predict their reaction,” Salafi politician Mohsen Abu Hassan said from Sheikh Zuwaid.
Morsy, meanwhile, appointed a new national intelligence chief and sacked the governor of the North Sinai region.
He appointed Mohamed Shehata as acting head of intelligence, sending Mourad Mwafi into retirement, presidency spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters.
Ali said Morsy also asked the head of Egypt’s armed forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to name a new chief of military police, and named a new head of the presidential guard.
It was unclear how far Morsy had taken the decisions in consultation with the army, which has kept a tight grip on security policy since the overthrow of Mubarak.
But he made the changes after holding a national security meeting that brought together Tantawi as well as the prime minister and interior minister.