July 06, 2015 - The growing Sunni Islamist threat

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This week, Alpher discusses the strategic significance for Israel of last week’s sweeping Islamist attacks on Egyptian army installations in Sinai, near the border with Israel; the regional implications, shared by Israel with some of its neighbors and with Europe, Russia and the United States; defines Israel’s dilemma in strategic terms, and what the ramifications are; how West Bank-based Hamas and lone-wolf terrorism affect Israel’s relations with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas; and what this portends for the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Q. What is the strategic significance for Israel of last week’s sweeping Islamist attacks on Egyptian army installations in Sinai, near the border with Israel?

A. Taken together with the earlier Islamist assassination in Cairo of the attorney general, the highest legal official prosecuting the Islamist opposition to the Sissi government, these events constituted a ringing defeat for President al-Sissi and a major indication that the wave of revolutionary events in Egypt that began in 2011 did not end when he took power two years ago. In Sinai, the Egyptian Army lost dozens of soldiers and, for several hours, control over around 15 outposts in the Sheikh Zuwaid area in the northeast corner of the Peninsula near the borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Both Egypt and Israel accused Gaza-based Hamas of complicity in the attacks, which were launched by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the Sinai branch of Islamic State. By week’s end, three rockets had been fired at Israel (only one landed in Israel) by the Sinai Islamists.

Israel has an obvious interest in the stability of the Sissi government in Cairo. Egypt combats the same Islamists that target Israel and cooperates militarily with Israel in dealing with them. Lately, after four years of revolution-induced stagnation, it has upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel too. If IS and its affiliates and proxies are threatening the Egyptian government’s stability, this is indirectly a threat to Israel too.

And there is another, even more ominous dimension to what happened last week. IS is becoming stronger in Sinai. The kind of coordinated offensive it carried out last week, involving over 100 attackers and spread over a 25 km. theater of operations, requires considerable military skill, manpower and logistics. Extremist Afghani and other volunteers are joining the Sinai Islamists, augmenting their Bedouin manpower base. And Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, like its fellow IS branch in the Levant, is beginning to openly proclaim the objective not only of toppling Arab governments but of “liberating Jerusalem” as well. Israel has essentially set aside peace treaty-bound constraints on Egyptian military deployment in Sinai in order to give the Egyptians maximum capacity to deploy forces there against the Islamists. Yet, at least for the moment, the tide is going against the Cairo government.

The Egyptian dilemma is not simple. The more Sissi cracks down on the Islamists in Cairo and the Delta, sentencing Muslim Brotherhood leaders to death and eliminating extremist activists in urban gun battles (last week nine Islamists were killed in an apartment in Cairo, seemingly in retribution for the attorney general’s assassination), the more he appears to be fanning the Islamist flames. Islamist rebels are crossing into Egypt from both Sinai on the east and Libya on the west.

A knowledgeable Jordanian observer, Oraib al-Rantawi, described the situation in Egypt in near-apocalyptic terms: “Egypt seems to have entered a phase of open war. . . . Egypt is on the verge of a harsh decade that may resemble what struck Algeria”--referring to the decade-long Algerian civil war that pitted the government against Islamists who had won a national election, beginning in 1991.

Another strategic observer, Major General (ret.) Shlomo Gazit, former head of IDF Intelligence, factored in the extremist Islamist threats on Israel’s northern borders as well and wrote: “This is a new reality that threatens Israel’s very existence. Against this threat we cannot rely on four or six submarines or on expensive stealth aircraft, tank formations or even the missile systems we are developing and producing. This is a new threat wherein the answer is not necessarily ‘just let the IDF win’”. Gazit concludes that Israel needs creative new thinking to combat the growing Islamist threat.

 

Q. But surely this is a regional problem, shared by Israel with some of its neighbors and with Europe, Russia and the United States. . .

A. Indeed, and each is dealing with it differently and, it must be noted, thus far ineffectively. The US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria is making no real progress. Recent Islamist attacks against Europeans in France and Tunisia (30 Britons slaughtered on the beach at Souse) have not appreciably augmented Europe’s relatively low-key participation in the anti-IS coalition in the Levant. Russia insists that the Assad regime with its horrific human rights record and its growing subservience to Iran is still its best option for deterring Sunni jihadist activities inside Russia itself, yet Assad is losing. Only the Kurds in Iraq and Syria can speak of net territorial gains against IS, while Iran has registered strategic gains in terms of strengthening its grip over proxy Shiite forces in Iraq and Alawite-Hezbollah forces in Syria.

Turkey and Jordan are reportedly alarmed enough regarding the fighting along their borders to weigh establishing buffer zones inside Syrian territory: Turkey, to prevent the emergence of a virtual Kurdish state to its south that could, Ankara fears, upset Turkish-Kurdish relations inside Turkey; and Jordan, to protect the Druze in and around Suweida, a move that would serve Israel’s interests by alleviating Israeli Druze pressure to come to the aid of Syrian Druze.

Everyone fighting the Islamists shares a major intelligence problem, one we mentioned last week: gaining early warning of Islamist leaders’ military intentions. Not unusually, last week’s attacks in Sinai came as a complete surprise to both Egypt and Israel.

But what distinguishes Israel’s dilemma from that of virtually all the other affected parties noted above is that Israel is consciously avoiding introducing its forces (like the US and Iran and potentially Jordan and Turkey) or its military influence (Russia in Syria) into the fray. This is the right decision: the last thing we need is for the Arab and Muslim worlds to accuse Israel of trying to aggrandize its territory at their expense and, accordingly, to focus all their anger and their attacks on us. But it also ties our hands.

 

Q. So how do you define Israel’s dilemma in strategic terms, and what are the ramifications?

A. We have already noted one analyst’s call for a concerted attempt to define the dilemma and find answers. Looking to Sinai, Yediot Aharonot military analyst Alex Fishman last Friday defined the dilemma as follows: “Israel cannot permit itself a prolonged situation characterized by the emergence of a threat under its nose while it labors under a lack of intelligence. Our strategy and Egypt’s in fighting terrorism are substantively different. Israel cannot and will not pay with a thousand casualties [a reference to the high losses sustained in Sinai by the Egyptian Army]. Nor can it permit a situation in which Sinai constitutes the logistical hinterland for Hamas in Gaza due to collaboration with IS. And IS is not only in Sinai. One has to be really naive to believe that IS has not crossed the border from Sinai into the Negev,” insofar as the same Bedouin tribes populate both.

If these strategic thinkers are right, then even those Israelis who argue that the only solution on the southern front is for Israel to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, whatever the cost in lives and international condemnation, don’t have an answer. Gazan Islamists would flee to Sinai and augment the mounting threat from there. Certainly, better intelligence regarding Islamist leaders’ intentions is one clear and urgent Israeli need and in many ways is a precondition to formulating a working strategy.

Meanwhile West Bank terrorism is slowly escalating. This might be due to Friday prayer incitement in honor of Ramadan and it might be part of a broader picture. Is Hamas the instigator? Hamas in Gaza seems preoccupied with its own issues: the movement is apparently split among a political wing interested in a ceasefire, a military wing aiding IS in Sinai and preparing energetically for the next round with Israel, and a growing extremist Salafist movement that opposes both. Accordingly, Hamas forces operating underground in the West Bank are taking orders not from Gaza but rather from Hamas activists in Turkey. Yet a lot of West Bank attacks are perpetrated by seemingly unaffiliated individuals: last week, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen told a Knesset committee that individual (“lone wolf”) terrorist attacks in the West Bank had risen by 50 percent since 2012.

 

Q. How does West Bank-based Hamas and lone-wolf terrorism affect Israel’s relations with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas?

A. Abbas is careful to instruct his security services to continue to deal harshly with Hamas and other planners and perpetrators of terrorism in the West Bank and to work closely with Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Lest we forget, in the current radicalized atmosphere of the Middle East, that cooperation is a key foundation of relatively stable PLO rule. On Sunday, PA security forces warned Hamas not to target them in retribution for their large-scale arrests of West Bank Hamas activists--a sure sign of rising intra-Palestinian tensions.

At the same time, Abbas seems determined to shore up his rule by targeting potential rivals from within Fateh. A few weeks ago, the assets of former prime minister Salam Fayyad’s NGO, Future for Palestine, were frozen on flimsy charges. Last week, Yasser Abed Rabbo was fired from his position as PLO Executive Committee secretary-general, also on a flimsy excuse. Separately, over recent years former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan has been targeted by Abbas, causing Dahlan to live in exile in Abu Dhabi (which funds his opposition activities). Meanwhile, no Palestinian elections are on the horizon (none have been held since 2006) and even the ruling party, Fateh, has not convened a party conference since 2009. With Abbas now in his eighties, this is creating a dangerous power vacuum in the West Bank.

 

Q. What does this portend for the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

A. The prospects are very poor. Abbas is focusing on the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and other international forums, but is operating from a weak power base in a chaotic neighborhood that is preoccupied with IS and Iran. Currently, in the absence of even a sham or virtual unity government with Gaza-based Hamas, Abbas certainly cannot claim to represent all Palestinian factions.

As for Israel, PM Netanyahu is content to take no West Bank initiatives while expanding settlements. And Netanyahu’s lack of a viable strategy regarding Hamas, which was so obvious during the last Gaza war a year ago, now threatens to merge with the far more complex issue, shared with Egypt, the US and others, of the absence of a viable strategy and a solid intelligence base for dealing with the gathering Islamic State forces on Israel’s borders.

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