Israeli Drone Strike Inside Sinai Shows a Growing, Sensitive Relationship

By Adam Entous and Charles Levinson WSJ

A funeral convoy in the Sinai Peninsula carried the bodies of four Islamist militants allegedly killed by an Israeli drone strike late last week.
A funeral convoy in the Sinai Peninsula carried the bodies of four Islamist militants allegedly killed by an Israeli drone strike late last week.

Israel and Egypt are quietly cooperating to quell Islamist militants along their border, Western officials say, a sensitive relationship illuminated by a deadly Israeli drone strike late last week inside Egyptian territory.

Israel’s intervention in the Sinai Peninsula—which Egyptian officials denied, and which Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied—would be the clearest manifestation of the high-level interaction between Israeli and Egyptian military and intelligence chiefs, according to the Western officials. Such cooperation between the U.S. allies has increased since last month’s ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, these officials say.

Four Islamists from a little-known group calling itself Ansar Jerusalem were killed in the strike Friday, according to the group, which said the members had been preparing to fire rockets into southern Israel. The strike was conducted by Israel, according to Western officials.
egypt sinai map
The attack was preceded by communications between senior Israeli security officials and their Egyptian counterparts, Western officials say. The security officials discussed the threat posed by the rocket crew and response options.

The understanding on both sides is that Israel will take direct action only as a last resort if the Egyptians aren’t in a position to stop an imminent threat from the Sinai, Western officials said. Such an Israeli intervention would be “very rare” because of Egyptian sensitivities, according to a senior Western official.

The arrangement shows the extent to which the Israeli and Egyptian militaries have closed ranks against militants massing on the peninsula. Heading west, militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades could target ships carrying oil through Egypt’s Suez Canal. In the other direction lies Eilat airport in southern Israel.

Early Tuesday morning, Egyptian militants fired a rocket at Eilat (in Israel) that was intercepted by one of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense batteries, according to the Israeli military.

After last week’s drone strike, the Egyptian military denied any Israeli involvement. Egyptian military officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in a written statement issued Saturday: “The State of Israel is aware and appreciates increased activity by the Egyptian military recently against terrorism across the Sinai Peninsula, including this weekend.”

A senior Israeli official, while declining to comment on any understanding between the two countries, said the security situation in Sinai represents a threat to both countries.

“We are respectful of Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai and we are very supportive of Egyptian efforts to deal with these challenges and we have good military to military cooperation,” the official added.

Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment on last week’s incident.

Relations with Egypt, a source of stability for Israel before the Arab Spring, have warmed significantly in recent weeks.

Israeli officials have made no secret they welcomed last month’s ouster of Mr. Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement has long-standing ties to Hamas, the Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip.

A senior American official described military cooperation between Israel and Egypt as “better than ever,” building on ties that started improving last fall. After the military intervened against Mr. Morsi, the Egyptian military closed some of the tunnels linking Egypt with the Gaza Strip, which are a lifeline for Hamas. Israel has long pressed the Egyptian military to take such a step.

The Western officials said Israel has in turn used its clout in Washington to try to protect the flow of U.S. military aid to Egypt despite the army’s ouster of the president, arguing that the money helps underpin the 1979 peace accord between the two countries. If U.S. aid is cut off, the Egyptian military could start scaling back their cooperation, Israeli officials have warned their American counterparts.

The cooperation marks a switch from the mutual hostility that followed the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and eventually led to Mr. Morsi’s election. Military-to-military ties established over decades of relative peace were maintained, but tensions ran high.

Israel’s attack on militants in Gaza in late November 2012 put the relationship with Egypt at its post-Arab Spring nadir.

Cooperation between the neighbors took a step forward toward the end of Mr. Morsi’s time in office, when jihadists in the Sinai started targeting the Muslim Brotherhood because they weren’t considered sufficiently Islamist.

With a nod from Israel, according to Israeli officials, Egypt stepped up its military presence in the Sinai.

That relationship tightened in the wake of the military’s July 3 overthrow of Mr. Morsi, which has fueled concerns of a wider fight between Islamists and non-Islamists.

Egypt’s new national security adviser, Raafat Shehata, has deep ties to Israeli intelligence. Another Egyptian intelligence veteran with deep ties to Israel, Gen. Nader al-Aasar, was promoted in recent weeks to head Egyptian intelligence’s international relations branch.

These ties helped facilitate the agreement between Egypt and Israel to make an exception to the three-decade-old Camp David peace treaty and allow Egypt to send a surge of military forces into the Sinai to combat the growing militant threat there, the Western officials said. The Egyptian military has made security of the Suez Canal their top priority.

The Israelis have stepped up their surveillance along the Egyptian border and increasingly into Egyptian territory itself, the Western officials said.

Officials say Israel’s military uses real-time images along the border with the Sinai from blimps, drone aircraft and satellites to spot potential threats, as was the case on Friday.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the cooperation reflected a convergence of interests.

“There is a real risk that the Sinai will become an area where the Egyptian military and police are going to lose their freedom of action and ability to move,” he said. “And it’s clear that Israel has every possible interest in stopping that from happening.”

Israeli officials say they have detected in recent months a dramatic increase in the number of militant groups operating in Sinai, as well as upticks in weapons smuggling and an upgrading of weapons capabilities.

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