Friday, February 24, 2017

The Sinai interest - Dr. Shaul Shay

by Dr. Shaul Shay

From a strategic standpoint, striking Israel is an attempt by Islamic State to undermine the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

The rocket fire from Sinai at the Eshkol Regional Council on Monday and the rocket fire at the southern resort city of Eilat two weeks ago is a message by Sinai Province -- Islamic State's proxy in the desert peninsula -- that it has trained its sights on Israel.

Islamic State has suffered significant defeats in Iraq and Syria, its operatives' morale has suffered blow after blow, and it is struggling to recruit new members to its ranks. Under these circumstances, the organization aims to mark achievements, and striking Israel serves this purpose. 

The past few months have seen Islamic State's proxy in Sinai under escalating attacks by Egyptian forces, mainly in northern Sinai. This has made it difficult for the terrorist group to carry out significant attacks against the Egyptian military, and Sinai Province is therefore trying to move its main scope of operations to central and southern Sinai. 

With this respect, firing rockets at Israel serves Islamic State's goal to make the Egyptian military deploy its forces across wider sectors, so to prevent fire on Israel, which would take the pressure off the group in northern Sinai.

Islamic State accuses Egypt and Israel of collaborating against it in the peninsula, and earlier this week it claimed four operatives were killed in an Israeli drone strike, prompting retaliation in the form of rocket fire on Eshkol. As far as Islamic State is concerned this was an attempt to re-establish its balance of deterrence vis-a-vis Israel. 

From a strategic standpoint, striking Israel is an attempt by Islamic State to undermine the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The jihadi group believes any strike from Sinai at Israel serves this purpose. 

Moreover, an escalation vis-a-vis Israel may serve Islamic State's complex relations with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The two terrorist groups have collaborated in the past, and Egypt has even accused Hamas of arming Sinai Province operatives. 

Recently, however, there has been some rapprochement between Cairo and Hamas, something Islamic State seeks to torpedo by provoking a security escalation in Sinai and targeting Israel. 

It is also possible that Islamic State's proxy seeks to test Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' newly elected leader in Gaza, who is known as a militant hard-liner.

Since 2013, Egypt has been relentlessly fighting Islamist terrorist groups in Sinai, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai Province. 

The head of Egypt's military intelligence recently said that Cairo has formulated a new strategy to fight terrorism, which includes three main components: Improving intelligence; mounting wide-scale offensive action against terrorist organizations while minimizing any harm to innocent civilians; and extensive projects to improve the living conditions of the Sinai population. 

He further noted that since 2015, Egyptian security forces have killed more than 500 terrorists in Sinai, and foiled an attempt by Islamic State to form what he called an "Islamic emirate" in northern Sinai. 

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sees the war on terror a key element in maintaining stability in Egypt and the Middle East as a whole. As such, Israel affords Egypt extensive leeway in its military operations in Sinai, including deploying air and ground forces in a scope that exceeds the parameters detailed in the two's 1979 peace deal.

Despite Egypt's efforts to eliminate terrorism in Sinai, there is still real concern that Islamic State will try to escalate its operations against Israel beyond rocket fire. Israel must prepare for this possibility and increase its collaboration with Egypt.

Dr. Shaul Shay is a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.


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