by Eyal Zisser
An attack by 300 terrorists in broad daylight with the objective of taking over an Egyptian municipality (Sheikh Zuweid) proves that this is already a full-scale militia that does as it pleases with large stretches of the Sinai Peninsula
The Islamic State group's attack in the northern Sinai Peninsula last week raised a justified concern in Israel about the possibility that the group may try to carry out similar attacks against Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Egypt border.
A few days later, Islamic State sent Israel a reminder of its existence, a warning of things come, with the launch of a few rockets from the Sinai border and the claim that Israel is helping the Egyptian army fight the group. But Islamic State does not need an excuse to attack Israel. Its operatives (in their previous incarnation as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis) have already fired rockets at Eilat in recent years, and in 2012, they carried out a terrorist attack on Route 12 along the Israeli-Egyptian border, killing eight Israeli citizens and soldiers.
And yet something has changed in the Sinai Peninsula recently. The attack on the Egyptian army outposts proves that Islamic State has grown under the watchful eyes of Israel and Egypt, and now it is no longer just a few hidden terror cells carrying out local targeted attacks and returning to their hiding places.
An attack by 300 terrorists in broad daylight with the objective of taking over an Egyptian municipality (Sheikh Zuweid) proves that this is already a full-scale militia that does as it pleases with large stretches of the Sinai Peninsula -- setting up bases and training camps and controlling the area undisturbed. An attack like this also demonstrates its significant operational capabilities -- with no shortage of weapons, funding or fighters -- as well as its command and control capabilities. All this has shown us, unfortunately, the failure of the Egyptian army to regain control over IS-taken land in the northern and central Sinai Peninsula.
A similar reality is likely to take shape earlier than anticipated on Israel's northern border as well, where Islamic State continues to close in on the border fence. A year ago, IS fighters were still in eastern Syria, nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the Israel-Syria border. Now, IS fighters can be found an hour's drive away from the border, and concern is growing that some of the rebel groups currently in the Golan Heights are planning to swear loyalty to it, just as happened in the Sinai. In Jordan, like in Egypt, it is likely that the terrorist organization will seek to establish bases from which to work not only against the Jordanian army, but also against Israel.
In the Sinai Peninsula, as in Syria, IS is at the brink of taking over a land base that will allow it to build itself up undisturbed. Airstrikes in the face of bases like these are nothing more than a minor annoyance, mosquito bites, and only a ground invasion can bring the phenomenon to an end. But a ground operation like that would not be practical. It's doubtful whether the Egyptian army would be capable of such an undertaking. And in Syria, there is no one left who is willing or able to take on IS.
Israel must not wait until IS's next attack is too close for comfort, whether in the north or the south. Israel is already taking preventative steps, such as fortifying the border and practicing increased alertness and caution nearby, and of course, collecting intelligence on IS. But in addition to all that, we must increase cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, which are both embroiled in the struggle against IS. And we must also consider active Israeli efforts against the terrorist organization, including acting against its arms routes, its funding, its flow of volunteers, and especially its attempts to take hold of land near the border with Israel.
And a final comment, the statements made by Israeli officials saying that Hamas in Gaza cooperated with IS in Sinai on the attacks on the Egyptian army and on firing missiles are worrying. After all, the single reason given not to topple Hamas in Gaza was to avoid having IS take over the Strip.
But now it seems that Israel will have to deal with Hamas and IS together, with a clear division of labor -- Hamas ensures calm along Gaza's border with Israel, but IS in the Sinai, with Hamas' help, freely operates against Israeli and Egyptian targets. This is a reality we cannot accept.
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