The growing possibility of a U.S.-led strike against Syria over President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians has caused the global spotlight to veer from the drama taking place in Egypt. The events in Cairo may no longer take center stage, but none of the problems plaguing Israel’s southern border have been resolved. On the contrary.
Egypt seems to have lost what little control it had on Sinai, where terror attacks against Cairo’s forces now take place on a daily basis, and the Gaza Strip-based terror groups continue to attack Israel, albeit less tenaciously.
The Israel Defense Forces is on double duty in the southern sector, as it works to both maintain the peace treaty with Egypt and deter Gaza’s terror groups. The troops deployed in the south face three major and constant threats: Gazan rocket fire on Tel Aviv and Sinai fire on Eilat; potential terror attacks against civilians and security forces along the southern borders; and perhaps the greatest threat of all — the loss of strategic relations with Egypt.
Risk management in the southern sector seems endless. In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman says that Israel is preparing for the possibility that the turmoil in Egypt will create a new reality along the borders, saying that since 2012′s Operation Pillar of Defense, Gaza-based terror groups have increased their ability to target central Israel.
“The IDF’s main enemy in the south are Gaza-based terrorists, from both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which are just waiting for the day they will be ordered to strike,” Turgeman said. “Global jihad [whose operatives are based in Sinai] is a disturbing and less familiar threat, but it is based in a country with which we have a peace deal. We have a partner that is equally threatened by them, so it’s a mutual interest.”
According to IDF data, a staggering 300 terror attacks were launched against Egyptian forces in Sinai over the past few weeks, the most deadly of which was the Aug. 19 execution of 25 Egyptian policemen in northern Sinai.
“Sinai is ruled by two major jihadi groups, which are supported by the local Bedouin tribes that have become religiously fanatic over the past few years. Add radical ideology, a plethora of weapons and no governance to the mix and you end up with the wild weeds we see overrunning Sinai today,” Turgeman said.
He said that the desert peninsula was now home to hundreds of terrorists, including radical Muslims from Iraq and Yemen, who receive their orders from global jihad leaders and al-Qaida. These terrorists’ primary goal is Egypt, with Israel ranking a close second.
“As they see it, once they are done taking care of Egypt, they’ll have time for us, as evident from the recent rocket fire on Eilat,” Turgeman said.
The Sinai-based terror groups “see Eilat as the ultimate symbol of Israeli freedom, prosperity and tourism. Disrupting that is a huge success in their book.”
Still, Turgeman stressed that there was no security reason to deter people from visiting the resort city.
“Neither the residents not the tourists have anything to worry about. It’s our job to make sure life in the city continue as usual,” he said.
The 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty introduced various complex limitations on the IDF’s ability to counter the threat posed by peninsula’s terror groups. Still, several weeks ago foreign media sources reported that an Israel Air Force drone had targeted a Sinai-based terror cell as it was about to fire rockets at Israel.
“We are doing everything in our power to maintain Egypt’s sovereignty and to coordinate our efforts with them, including when it comes to concrete threats,” Turgeman said. “But at the end of the day we are responsible for the area’s security. We will continue to spare no effort to respect Egypt’s sovereignty and to bolster our [security] collaboration, because it is a primary interest for us, but we must do our job as well.”
As part of Israel’s effort to maintain Egypt’s sovereignty in Sinai, it allowed Egypt to deploy massive military forces in the area, including 10 infantry regiments and eight helicopter gunships — far beyond what was stipulated in the peace agreement.
Turgeman said that the measure allowed Egyptian security forces to note considerable success in their crackdown on terrorists in Sinai, “but this kind of operation requires persistence over time to truly be effective.” Asked whether Israel should allow Cairo to deploy more troops on the ground, he said: “That is for the government to decide.”
Should the government ask for his recommendations in the matter, Turgeman said: “If we see that [Egypt] has exhausted its possibilities in Sinai and the problems lies with the sheer volume of forces, then in my opinion it is in our mutual interest to allow it to a very limited and closely monitored extent.”
The IDF has been monitoring the political turmoil in Egypt since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, deeming the possibility that Israel’s southern neighbor will be overrun by radical forces a “strategic alert.”
“Preparing for the unknown is a substantial challenge, so the idea is to develop generic capabilities that can be adapted to counter [the situation in] Syria as well as other sectors,” Turgeman said. “What we’ve done on the Israel-Egypt border is unprecedented: building the border fence, dealing with the unrelenting influx of refugees and infiltrators, and bolster our intelligence capabilities.”
The past two years, however, have debunked Egypt’s status as Israel’s steadfast regional ally.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned is that the Middle East offers no guarantees,” Turgeman said. “This volatility mandates that we be more cautious in our situation assessments and that we prepare for different scenarios, as well as make an effort to preserve the peace deal.”
‘Everything is under control’
Turgeman was named GOC Southern Command shortly after the 2012 military campaign in Gaza, which restored relative calm to Israel’s southern communities. He credits the lasting normalcy in part to the animosity between the new Cairo regime and Hamas, which has resulted in an unprecedented crackdown on the smuggling tunnels running between Sinai and Gaza.
“Egypt sees the tunnels as an infringement on its sovereignty, so razing them serves their interests,” he said. “So far they’ve razed hundreds of tunnels, but since digging tunnels is not a lengthy process, it’s a constant battle.”
Hamas’ grip on the Gaza Strip has been destabilized by the crackdown on the tunnels, which serve as a pipeline for goods, funds and weapons to Gaza, and being cut off from Cairo has taken its toll on the terror group’s rule over the area, Turgeman said.
“Hamas is troubled because its future seems problematic … losing the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, the dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip, the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — all this does not bode well for Hamas,” he said.
“But still, there is no scenario in the Middle East today that spells Hamas’ ouster from power. There is no one and nothing to take its place in Gaza in the near future.”
Turgeman stressed that since Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas had invested considerable resources in bolstering its long-range ballistic capabilities, as well as its rocket stockpiles.
“In some aspects it has made progress and in others, it hasn’t. That’s why our deterrence is in place,” he said.
As for Hamas’ improved aiming capabilities, Turgeman had only one thing to say: “So far, everything is under control.”