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Analysis: Islamic State over the border - Egypt's army will not suffice

Jihadists have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers in attacks in North Sinai since the military toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and launched a deadly crackdown on his supporters
STR (AFP/File)
Israel's border with Egypt is quiet, but will it stay that way?

In contrast to the battles taking place deep inside northern Sinai, the Israeli-Egyptian border seems pastoral these days. However, both Egypt and Israel know that an Islamic State attack is only a matter of time and strategic consideration.

"The moment Islamic State carries out a significant attack against us, they will be under intense Israeli and Egyptian pressure," an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) source said. "They will not be able to withstand it at a time when they are facing defeats elsewhere in the region, such as Iraq and Syria."

AFP/File

However, that has not stopped the organization from attacking the Egyptians.

On Friday, Islamic State carried out a large attack on Egyptian military forces near the village of Al Barth, south of Rafah. It is about 20km from the Nitzana Border Crossing and five Israeli communities. The attack killed 23 Egyptian soldiers and included two car bombs and an assault on a military checkpoint.

Infiltration from the Egyptian border

The Southern Command's 80th "Edom" Division is in charge of border security for the IDF. The unit was established in 2007 with the intention of dealing with the problem of infiltrators from the Egyptian border.

Whereas illegal African migrants were once the top concern in the area, that honor has since gone to Islamic State and Al Qaeda. As such, the unit's function has changed dramatically and it is now in charge of a smaller area, which includes the five Israeli communities.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

On the Egyptian side, the same function is being carried out by Egyptian border guards who have suffered quite a few casualties in recent years in the fighting against Islamic State. Their positions are being fortified and are located roughly half a kilometer apart.

A senior IDF source told Ynet that an Islamic State attack on Egyptian forces near the border is only a matter of time and the army is working to thwart it.

Islamic State religious police burning contraband

"The main challenge here is the lack of depth. We see the Egyptians, the fence and us, and it cannot stop terrorists. For example, Friday's attack is a terrorist attack that wouldn't shame a special unit. Car bombs and frontal assaults were utilized."

The close proximity of Israeli communities and vital assets in the area is a concern, especially the Nitzana crossing itself which is supposed to be a symbol of Egyptian and Israeli cooperation. Every day roughly 80-90 trucks carrying goods travel between the two nations.

One of the worst terror attacks in recent memory occurred in 2012 when the forerunner to Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula attacked an army post on the Egyptian side of the crossing.

"One of our horror scenarios is an attempt to smuggle a truckload of explosives into the Nitzana crossing and then penetrate into Israeli territory," said the IDF official.

20 Egyptian battalions against hundreds of Islamic State fighters

Since the ousting of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2012, Abed al-Fattah el-Sisi has been waging an all-out war against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel has been allowing Egypt to deviate from parameters surrounding the peace agreement and allowed the government to increase their military presence in the region in an effort to combat the surge of terrorism.

What was once three to four battalions is now twenty. Additionally, the Egyptians have brought in combat aircraft, armored vehicles and artillery. They have even acquired Chinese drones.

"It is not easy to fight a Bedouin when you are not a Bedouin. The population has been neglected for years by the regime - they do not even have identity cards. Each tribe is an entity in its own right, and the province of Sinai is a kind of new Bedouin tribe. What happens there is similar to what is happening in the West Bank, and the challenge of the Egyptian army is to prevent the population from joining Islamic State," said the IDF source.

But recently there has been an interesting turnaround in the balance of power in the northern part of the Sinai.

The dominant tribe of Tarabin, which makes its living from smuggling and drug farming, entered a cycle of bloodshed with Islamic State in Sinai after the organization's religious police seized their goods for religious reasons.

The confrontation led to fighting, which has yet to resolve itself.

The Egyptian army sees this as an opportunity to join hands with the tribe, which has hundreds of its own fighters, against Islamic State. However, the source of the tribe's income from criminal business puts a question mark on cooperation with the regime over an extended period of time.

In contrast to Hamas, IS doesn't care about the population

Israel is monitoring developments and cooperating with the Egyptians to protect the border. It should be noted that this is not the first time that there have been warnings of an upcoming terror attack by the Islamic State branch in Sinai. For the time being, it has not yet happened.

"Their operational ability to carry out an attack is very good, and they have a good ability to manufacture and use explosive devices, and also with the Kornet [Russian-made anti-tank] missiles. And they can be seen in their videos expressing their desire to kill Jews and reach Jerusalem. It's a question of timing. At the moment they are busy with the Egyptian army, and it's fair to say that in their opinion, it's not going badly," says an Israeli source.

Islamic State

"As soon as they carry out a major attack against us, they will have pressure from two countries, one of which has the strongest army in the region. So it's not good for them to be pulled in two directions, especially at a time when other branches of Islamic State are suffering defeats elsewhere in the region, such as in Iraq and Syria."

Deterrence against the branch of Islamic State is also not a simple issue. According to the same source, "Hamas and Hizbollah know how to create deterrence, as they are organizations with governing motives that take into account the needs of the population. This is different - the organization does not care about the population. "

What is reasonable to deduce is that Islamic State is afraid that there would be a large number of casualties, which could deter the organization from entering into conflict with Israel as it does not operate at the same level as other branches of the movement which can bring foreign fighters from Europe. Here the recruitment is local, from Sinai and from Egypt, and that makes it difficult for the militant group."

Until then,the only thing breaking the peace on the border is the echo of the explosions from Israeli military testing. The hope is that this will remain the case.

Roi Kais is the Arab Affairs Correspondent at Ynet

This article was published courtesy of Ynet

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