Israel has been closely monitoring the ongoing security developments in Sinai, especially the Egyptian army’s comprehensive military Operation Sinai-2018 against armed groups in northern and central Sinai since February 2018. Tel Aviv believes that its intervention in the Sinai Peninsula a distinctly Israeli affair under the pretext that these militant groups pose continued threats to the Israeli settlements adjacent to the Egyptian border. The Israeli role in Sinai can be viewed within the framework of efforts to protect its insecure southern border – in the absence of Egyptian security and military control and in light of a likely transfer of the deteriorating security situation in Sinai to occupied territories. According to Israel’s assessment of the security situation in Sinai, there are several reasons that push Tel Aviv to play a central role there, including:
1- Egypt is a strategic and important ally of what Benjamin Netanyahu calls the “moderate alliance” that targets confronting the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East. Accordingly, the Israeli intelligence service is apparently conducting undeclared contacts with several Arab countries, including Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and others to provide support to Egypt with respect to its confrontation of the security threats in Sinai.
The Israeli government often announces keenness on maintaining security calm along its southern border with Egypt and establish good neighborly relations with the regime in Egypt; and claims that militants in Sinai maintain close contacts with Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Salafist organizations in Gaza and smuggle weapons and munitions to the strip via tunnels. In this regard, Israel is also keen on opening communication channels with Libya’s retired General Khalifa Haftar to exchange security information and cooperate on stopping the flow of arms from Libya through Sudan up to Sinai and Gaza.
2- During a meeting with Israeli ambassadors at the Israeli Foreign Ministry In December 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel exerts excessive security and military efforts to prevent the presence and survival of the Islamic State organization and its allies in Sinai without giving further details.
Israel believes that the armed groups that have been defeated in Syria and Iraq are trying to find a foothold in Egypt, so Tel Aviv moves to prevent such threat on its own terms. Israel even claims that without the role it plays in Sinai, the Islamic State organization would have established a state in the Sinai Peninsula, posing a threat to the entire region.
3- Israel gives itself the right to conduct security and military assessments to the performance of Egyptian army and security services in the Sinai, most recently an Israeli security situation assessment that was issued in November. The Israeli situational assessment expressed great disappointment toward the performance of the Egyptian army and intelligence services in Sinai. It states that Egyptians have failed to eliminate the IS militants in the Sinai Peninsula despite the Israeli aid provided to Egypt, amid Israeli intelligence estimates that the number of jihadists in Sinai reached 2,000 fighters.
The Israeli intelligence services always announces that the Egyptian army is incapable of defeating the IS organization in Sinai despite the tremendous assistance it receives from its Western counterparts as well as Israel. In fact, the Egyptian army has not succeeded to accomplish its military mission despite pledges to eliminate militants in the Sinai by the end 2018, which has not been fulfilled so far although the number of attacks launched by militant groups in in Rafah, Sheikh Zuwaid, and Arish, in northern Sinai, declined significantly last summer.
Within its review of security threats, Israel still considers the IS organization a threat to its security as the militant organization represents a challenge to the Egyptian army despite its military campaigns against militants since 2011. This increases suspicions around Egypt’s ability to eliminate the IS threat in Sinai, amid efforts exerted by the Egyptian regime to prepare public opinion for accepting the fact that the army would not be able to uproot the IS organization in Sinai, being an impossible mission.
4- Israel closely monitors the security situation on its border with Egypt and provides assistance to the Egyptian army in areas of security and intelligence information. Tel Aviv has also agreed on deployment of more Egyptian military forces in Sinai, contrary to terms of the Camp David accords, as elimination of the IS organization would achieve Israel’s vital security interests.
According to the Israelis, the Sisi regime has not exerted necessary effort for the achievement of security in the Sinai Peninsula, despite the army’s adoption of brute force with militants, improvement of its security capabilities (including gathering information and recruiting agents within these armed groups), and deployment of large military forces, as well as the intelligence assistance it receives from various international services in Sinai.
Israel believes that the ongoing military operation in Sinai is the largest military activity carried out by the Egyptian army since the 1973 war, where five times the forces allowed under the Camp David accords with Israel have been deployed in the peninsula with Israeli consent, as the military operation serves Israeli security interests.
5- Some Israeli assessments indicate that the developments of the Egyptian military operation in Sinai and their expected repercussions on the political situation may be linked to the ‘deal of the century’, amid an Israeli reading of Sisi’s objectives regarding the Sinai military operation as:
– Boosting his political status as a leader capable of confronting armed groups,
– Inciting Egyptian local media and public opinion against political opponents, and
– Obtaining European-American military aid.
However, Sisi is criticized for his regime’s human rights violations and eviction of the Sinai people in preparation for the ‘deal of the century’. Although the Egyptian government reiterates denial of the idea of resettling the Palestinians in Sinai, many Egyptians and Palestinians do not trust such statements.
6- Israel believes that the allegations that the Egyptian army has managed to eliminate the hotbeds of militants in the Sinai are questionable amid their rising numbers. In fact, the militants’ stereotype image has significantly changed in Sinai: they no longer appear wearing traditional Bedouin clothes. However, they have become well-equipped fighters wearing military uniform, moving in jeeps and carrying personal weapons. They have become well-organized militarily trained groups that carry out combat operations almost like those of regular armies, including the firing of mortar shells, artillery and anti-tank missiles.
Amid appointment of a new Israeli army commander, Israel is aware that the Sinai front is no less dangerous than its counterparts in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and possibly Iran, which requires more capabilities for foiling any likely threats on this front.