Cross-Border Attack Tests Israel-Egypt Peace


A cross-border attack by terrorists in the Sinai that killed one Israeli contract worker Monday and led to Israeli and Hamas reprisal attacks is the latest fallout from the political earthquake in neighboring Egypt.

Three terrorists were reportedly responsible for the attack on a group of Israelis working on constructing a fence along the Israeli-Sinai border to keep out terrorists and African asylum seekers. Authorities said the attack was similar to one last August from the Sinai that killed eight Israelis near the southern Israeli resort of Eilat.

“Sinai has become a no-man’s land for smuggling and carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel in the last year and a half,” said Avi Dichter, a former minister of Internal Security and director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic counterintelligence and internal security agency.

But he said that once last weekend’s presidential election results are finalized and a winner declared, he would expect law and order to return to the Sinai.

“I believe the new regime in Egypt will have a strong interest in blocking terror attacks from the Sinai because they are against Egyptian interests,” Dichter said, adding that they “will continue to turn a blind eye to smuggling [weapons] from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.”

Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood quickly declared himself the presidential victor just hours after the polls closed. But his opponent, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, claimed Tuesday that he had won by 500,000 votes. The official winner is expected to be declared Thursday.

But Mara Revkin, editor of Egyptsource, a blog that has been following the turmoil in Egypt since last year’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, said the election results are likely to be so close that whoever loses will challenge them. She thought it was too close to call.

After the terror attack Monday, Israel sent two tanks to the border in violation of the Israel-Egyptian Peace Treaty of 1979, according to Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University.

“The peace treaty limits the number of weapons and troops each is allowed to have along the border,” he said. “No tanks or rockets or helicopters or air fighters are allowed.”

But he noted that Egyptian officials remained silent after the cross-border gun battle.

“Most likely I think the military council has received some clarifications from the Israeli side and decided not to put more oil on the fire,” Meital said. “I think that is actually a good sign. They are trying to minimize it, because this whole thing is so volatile and fragile. If Israel will now stop its attacks on Gaza, I assume this will all die very fast.”

Revkin said one of the reasons terrorists were able to operate in the Sinai is that the Egyptian military redeployed its troops to Egyptian cities to cope with demonstrations and possible riots following the Egyptian military’s decision last week to seize more power in advance of the election.

Should Shafik be declared the winner, she said she believes he would “preserve the status quo under the rule of the military.”

Dichter said that no matter who wins, the first order of business will be to “stabilize the country.”

“It’s not easy to feed 85 million people,” he said. “Jobs and salaries have not been the best, and if the country is not stabilized things will get very complicated. And so if Morsi wins he will work to stabilize the country to show there is nothing to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood. He will also try to get government jobs for as many members of the Muslim Brotherhood as he can.”

“Changes will be made step-by-step through the schools and universities and ministries,” Dichter said. “It will take time — a year or two. I don’t think there will be Sharia law anytime soon or forcing women to get covered in public. I think they will try to do that by having more and more women wear headcoverings in the streets — and then make it law.”

He pointed out that Cairo, home to 20 million Egyptians, did not vote for Morsi and to “try to force change won’t be easy.”

No matter which man wins, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty will not be abrogated, although Morsi has said he would like to see parts renegotiated to allow a greater Egyptian military presence in the Sinai.

Such a move is being hotly debated in Israel, Meital said, with the right-wing parties opposed and Kadima and Labor in favor.

“In the military it is also seen as controversial, but I think that most of the security apparatus see it as a positive sign — getting an agreement with the Egyptians on numbers and places and weapons.”