Israeli medics treat the wounded after one of several attacks in the south. Image from CTV.
Israel suffered its worst terrorist attack since 2008 when heavily armed teams of Palestinian fighters crossed the border from Gaza and attacked civilians and the military in the southern part of the country. Eight Israelis were killed in the attacks, and at least seven terrorists were killed in the counterstrike. Three Egyptian security personnel were also accidentally killed in the crossfire.
Around noon on Thursday, after crossing the border into Israel from Egypt’s increasingly restive Sinai region, gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades, and some with suicide belts, prepared an ambush position spanning 300 yards on Route 12 near Eilat, close to the Egyptian border. The terrorists opened fire on at least two buses packed with Israeli tourists, injuring a number of them, and also fired on two cars. Witnesses claimed that three of the assailants followed one of the buses, opening fire with Kalashnikovs, supporting the Israeli government’s assertion that there were a large number of attackers working in multiple squads. The assailants then detonated an improvised explosive device on a responding military vehicle.
Another similar attack the same day occurred about 10 miles north near the town of Be’er Ora, closer to the Jordanian border, in which a rocket-propelled grenade was fired on a car, resulting in a majority of the fatal casualties in the coordinated plots. Mortar fire was also reported to have targeted civilians working on a fence along the Israeli-Egypt border. Eventually, Israeli soldiers were able to track down and kill seven of the assailants in a gun battle; three of the bodies still had explosive devices attached to them. Roadblocks were then erected by the Israeli military, cutting off all roads leading in and out of Eilat. Hours later, gunmen who had escaped returned and opened fire, killing a member of a police counter-terrorism unit.
Gunfire is reported to have continued on both sides of the border late into the night. Israel’s anti-missile systems have intercepted a rocket fired from Gaza targeting the city of Ashkelon. So far, five other rockets have landed in southern Israel. There are no reports of casualties in those attacks.
The Israeli response
The response by the Israeli government was decisive and swift. Security officials called an emergency meeting at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv and the attention immediately turned to the Gaza Strip. Within hours, airstrikes were launched in Rafah, close to the Egyptian border, killing at least six Palestinians. Among the dead were the commander and four other members of the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group linked to Hamas that Israeli officials believe was behind the Eilat attacks today.
Militants were also targeted by an Israeli airstrike while trying to escape back into Egypt toward Taba. The attack resulted in the deaths of three Egyptians. “An Israeli plane had been chasing militant infiltrators along the border between Taba and Eilat and one Egyptian Central Security Officer and two Central Security men were caught in the line of fire,” an Egyptian army official said.
The Popular Resistance Committees has been responsible for a bombing of a US diplomatic convoy in 2003; firing mortars on Israeli settlements in Gaza; and most notoriously, the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Sergeant Gilad Schalit in 2006, who is still being held captive. Israeli officials believe it was the objective of the attackers to capture or kidnap Israeli civilians and military. When contacted about the complicity of his group in the Eilat attacks, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees declined to comment but vowed retaliation for the deaths of his comrades.
Despite comments from Taher Nunu, a government spokesman for Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, claiming that the group played no role in the Eilat attacks, the Israeli government was not ready to dismiss the assertion that other groups weren’t complicit in assisting the Popular Resistance Committee’s actions. “Because Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is in control of Gaza, we won’t let them subcontract terrorism. They are responsible for terrorism emanating from their territory,” an Israeli government official said.
Underlying security fears
Today’s attacks underscore the concerns that Egyptian and Israeli security officials have voiced over Egypt’s restive Sinai region, which is dominated by Bedouin tribes and operates semi-autonomously from the central government. But since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruling council has been preoccupied with pacifying Cairo protests, while Salafi-jihadists, aligned with al Qaeda elements bearing the black flag of jihad, have organized and promulgated their presence and their intention on turning the Sinai into their Islamic emirate governed by sharia law.
On July 29, hundreds of members of a militant Islamist group calling itself Takfir wal-Hirja, joined by Palestinian terrorist factions, stormed a Salafist mosque, heavily armed with machine guns. In the resulting clash with those rallying outside, seven people were killed. That same day, around 100 masked and heavily-armed gunmen attacked two police stations in the city of Al-Arish, killing one policeman, one military officer, and three civilians. General Saleh al Masry, who is in charge of security in the North Sinai region, said that the Takfir wal-Hirja group became active throughout the revolution and the subsequent security vacuum.
A report from Al-Ahram details the recent uptick in Takfir wal-Hirja’s presence in the Sinai. Preceding the attacks at Al-Arish, Salafi-jihadist groups have recently demonstrated their strength by converging by the hundreds, heavily armed, on multiple occasions, on the city of Shaykh Zuwayd, located between Al-Arish and the Rafah border crossing. Activists and tribal sources in the area say that the militants come from Al-Quray’a, a village that extends to the Egyptian-Israeli borders, where smuggling tunnels facilitate the crossing of goods, weapons, and fighters into Gaza.
According to Shaykh Zuwayd resident Husayn al-Qayyim, “no less than 1,000 of them fully armed and in four-wheel cars entered the city to show their support for one of their men who had been involved in an ordinary quarrel with one of the inhabitants of the city.” But the real reason Qayyim felt they made their presence known was as a show of force in the area. The group has also claimed responsibility for the recent bombing of a pipeline that provides gas to Israel, one of five such bombings this year.
Recent reports from the area also claim that a group called “Al Qaeda Sinai Branch” has recently distributed flyers and other propaganda outside of a mosque in Al-Arish, calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and encouraging attacks on security forces. The militants’ propaganda also pressed the Egyptian army to break the Camp David Peace Accords to end the siege on Gaza.
This surge in militant jihad in the Sinai has prompted the Egyptian military, with the approval of the Israeli government, to launch a security operation in the coastal area between Al-Arish and Rafah – where Takfir wal-Hirja and “Al Qaeda Sinai Branch” have established a base. In recent days, hundreds of army and police in tanks and armored vehicles have deployed and surrounded vital buildings in the area, and police stations in Shaykh Zuwayd and Rafah have been reinforced. Security forces conducting the operation over the past four days have arrested at least 24 suspects, some reported to have been involved in recent attacks, and have seized weapons and explosives.
So far, no direct evidence has been found linking the recently entrenched jihadist elements in the North Sinai to the attackers that Israeli officials believe crossed from Gaza into the Sinai and eventually entered southern Israel. But the increasingly apparent lack of security by the Egyptians in the region dominated comments by Israeli officials regarding the attacks at Eilat.
“Today we all witnessed an attempt to step up terror by attacking from Sinai. If anyone thinks Israel will live with that, he is mistaken. If the terror organizations think they can strike at our civilians without a response, they will find that Israel will exact a price – a very heavy price,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated: “The incident underscores the weak Egyptian hold on Sinai and the broadening of the activities of terrorists.”
And another Israeli official observed: “We have seen the Egyptian government has challenges in exercising its authority. Different terrorist groups have been able to exploit that – and that’s bad for Israel, bad for Egypt and a potential global problem.”
Attacks in the area are expected to increase as long as the Egyptian government fails to exercise control in the remote North Sinai, as militants will continue to use the region as a base for more attacks on Israel.
- Armed men cross Egyptian border, kill 8 Israelis, AJC
- Israel launches Gaza air strikes in retaliation for Eilat attacks, Guardian
- Egypt: Six dead in assault on Sinai police station, Los Angeles Times
- Officials: Egypt to target al Qaeda cells said to be training in Sinai, CNN
- Security operation continues in North Sinai, The Daily News Egypt
- Profile: Popular Resistance Committees, BBC
- The Secrets of Al-Arish Conquest: The Holders of the Black Flags Belong to the Salafi-Jihadists, Al-Ahram