Israel targets Iranian arms shipments through Sinai
CAIRO - Israel’s military role in Sinai and the intensity of its security coordination with Egypt have come to the fore recently with the Israeli Air Force conducting strikes against targets in Egyptian territory.
Israeli fighter jets have attacked trucks, said to be carrying Iranian weapons from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, from last November and through May 2019.
The trucks carried missiles, weapons and explosives from Libya on the road to Gaza, Israeli media said. One of the trucks allegedly held Iranian missiles meant for Islamic Jihad, a militant faction in Gaza, Palestinian sources told the Israeli website i24NEWS.
Israel, the website claimed, was leading a large intelligence operation in Sinai to prevent the delivery of weapons and funds to Hamas and Islamic Jihad through tunnels.
Egypt has not officially commented on the report or on repeated Israeli statements about coordination in Sinai but news of the Israeli air strikes was no surprise to the Egyptian military and political analysts who pointed to growing security coordination between Cairo and Tel Aviv, two historical enemies that are becoming united by the fight against extremism and Iran’s destabilising role in the region.
“There is growing security coordination between Egypt and Israel, especially in Sinai,” said Akram Badreddine, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Behind this coordination, there are understandings between the two sides on the fight against terrorism.”
In an interview last January with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” programme, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged coordination between Egypt and Israel after being asked whether Cairo had its “deepest and closest cooperation” ever with Israel.
“That is correct,” Sisi said. “Egyptian fighter jets fighting [the Islamic State] ISIS sometimes have to cross to the Israeli side of the border and this makes it important for us to coordinate with the Israeli side,” Sisi said.
The coordination apparently entails the crossing into Sinai by Israeli fighter jets to strike common targets or threats to Israel’s security.
Israel and Egypt acting together at the security level is one aspect of the new Middle East, a region where traditional enemies are united by security threats. Islamist extremism and instability in Sinai, along with Iran’s growing influence in the region, are perceived as threats to both Egypt and Israel.
Egypt and Israel are reportedly collaborating to prevent Gaza from turning into a threat to their security and stave off Iranian influence near their borders. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel following a series of wars with the country, most recently the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Sisi has officially met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at least twice since he became president in 2014.
Close coordination between Egypt and Israel has become a national security necessity for both sides, analysts said because ISIS militants in Sinai are as much a threat to Israel’s security as they are to Egypt’s.
The security appendix of the peace treaty between the two countries limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in Sinai and the type of equipment they can use there.
To fight ISIS, Egypt transferred tens of thousands of troops into Sinai, a deployment that needed approval from Tel Aviv because it could have been considered a violation of the 1979 treaty.
In January 2017, Sisi revealed that 41 Egyptian army battalions — approximately 25,000 personnel — were fighting ISIS in Sinai. Egypt also needed to move heavy equipment, including tanks, personnel carriers and fighter jets, which were banned by the treaty, into Sinai.
Iranian involvement in Gaza is another reason the two countries stepped up coordination, analysts said.
“Egypt has been seeing Iranian involvement in Sinai and in Gaza for a long time now,” said Gehad Auda, a political science professor at Helwan University.
Egyptian and Israeli security officials meet twice a year to discuss measures against common security threats. Security coordination between the two countries is stipulated in the 1978 peace treaty. Border control and the fight against smuggling gangs along the border between Israel and Sinai are at the centre of security talks between the Egyptian and Israeli officials.
Unrest in Libya, Iran’s involvement in backing extremists in Sinai and in Gaza and ISIS in Sinai are apparently compounding the common threats facing the two countries.
“Security collaboration serves the best interests of both states,” said retired Army General Mohamed al-Shahawi. “This collaboration is important for cutting off logistical support to the terrorists in Sinai, especially with the presence of regional sponsors for these terrorists.”