Egypt Fallout

Israel’s Balancing Act in Sinai

08.16.13 8:15 PM ET

Turmoil and civil strife are engulfing Egypt, and members of the Israeli defense establishment are watching events unfold south of the border with concern. In one sense, the bloody struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is an internal Egyptian affair. But it doesn't take very much imagination to see how growing instability in Egypt can affect the region as a whole, Israel included.

The IDF's Southern Command is focusing its gaze on the Sinai Peninsula, which has become a hotbed of radical Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups that are taking advantage of the power vacuum to flourish in the desert dunes. Training camps and weapons caches are mushrooming.

The armed groups in Sinai are composed of an unknown number of members (some estimates have put them in the thousands). They are made up of radicalized Bedouin, residents of Egypt proper, and a growing number of foreign volunteers.

The more chaotic things get in Egypt proper, the harder it will be for the Egyptian military, stretched to capacity on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, to keep the jihadis in the Sinai province in check. And the streets of Egyptian cities don't look like they will quiet down any time soon.

The Sinai jihadis have focused most of their gun, rocket, and bomb attacks on Egyptian security personnel, which in turn have stepped up counter-terrorism raids.

The Egyptian army has asked—and received approval from—Israel to insert additional military forces into Sinai, in excess of the quantity specified by the peace treaty between the two countries. Israel approved Egypt's requests to ensure the survival of that very treaty.

For the goal of the jihadis in Sinai is not only to kill Egyptian soldiers and policemen. It is also to fire rockets into southern Israel, and send highly armed terrorist cells on deadly cross-border raids, as they have done repeatedly in the past two years.

By attacking Israel, the radical groups (the most notorious of which is called Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis) are fulfilling their pledge to carry out a jihad against Israel, and seeking to provoke an international incident between Israel and Egypt that will undermine the peace treaty.

If Egypt needs to divert its military away from Sinai, to the bloody streets of its major cities, the armed factions in Sinai will have a greater opportunity to realize their goals.

In light of these factors, Israel is maintaining a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, Israel must act to secure its south from rocket attacks and cross-border infiltrations. On the other, Israel is keen to avoid embarrassing the Egyptian army with a high-profile counter-terrorism intrusion into Egyptian territory. That would arm the Islamist opposition with rhetorical sticks with which to beat the Egyptian army.

The IDF is quietly working to improve its intelligence capabilities, beef up patrols along the frontier, and complete a 240-kilometer border fence, which is equipped with advanced electronic sensors.

An additional measure taken by the IDF has been to enhance air defenses around the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, which is heavily dependent on the tourism industry. These steps have gone some way to improving security, as the past weekend demonstrated, when an Iron Dome battery intercepted a rocket fired at Eilat. Tourists in crowded beaches, bars, and hotels in Eilat were startled by the sound of an air raid siren and scrambled for cover, but were left unharmed as the Iron Dome interceptor went into action in the skies above them.

The security measures are effective, yet defensive. What happens when Israeli intelligence learns of an imminent attack forming in Sinai? How does it affect the balancing act? It is fair to assume that the IDF would move immediately to neutralize the threat.

According to unconfirmed international media reports, that's what happened last week when an Israeli drone allegedly struck a terrorist cell in Sinai that was about to fire rockets into Israel. The group, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, later issued a statement confirming that its "martyrs" were in their final preparations to launch rockets at Israel.

This unstable formula looks set to continue into the foreseeable future. According to Israeli defense officials, every day throws up new dilemmas on how to firmly safeguard national security in a region that seems to have gone mad. The main challenge now is protecting the country's borders without sparking a wider escalation.