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Unprecedented security cooperation between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai

January 27, 2014 at 1:55 pm

On Friday, in Egypt’s largely lawless Sinai Peninsula, a drone strike killed at least four suspected Islamic militants and destroyed a rocket launcher. The attack, which came one day after Israel temporarily closed its airport in the holiday resort of Eilat, near to the Sinai, is widely believed to have been carried out by an Israeli drone.

Israel’s media has reported that the strike was carried out by Israeli air force drones with the Egyptian military’s consent, but the government has maintained an official silence. An Egyptian military spokesman denied the report, but did not offer an alternative explanation. Similarly, Egypt’s state news agency, MENA, reported that the explosion had killed five militants but did not elaborate.

It seems beyond doubt that the strike was, indeed, an Israeli military operation carried out with the consent of the Egyptian military. Eye witnesses report that an Egyptian helicopter flew over the site a few minutes before the explosion. Although an Egyptian military spokesman issued a statement denying “in form and substance any attacks from the Israeli side inside Egyptian territories”, the Associated Press reports that Egyptian security officials confirmed off the record that the Israeli attack was carried out with the cooperation of the Egyptian authorities. This is despite previous assertions that the government would not allow anyone to use its territories to launch attacks.

For Israel to carry out an operation on the territory of its Arab neighbour is a rarity. The Israeli government generally retains an official silence on security matters, but in this case, it may also be an attempt to minimise embarrassment for the Egyptian military.

Certainly, this drone attack appears to indicate a significant change in the relationship between the two countries following the military coup that ousted Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, last month. Morsi, a former prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, was the most openly anti-Israel leader that Egypt has had for many years. While he did not do a huge amount to further the Palestinian cause (as it was hoped he would), nor did Morsi co-operate with Egypt’s neighbour.

One of the Egyptian military’s complaints about Morsi was that he had turned a blind eye to jihadists in the Sinai. Under Morsi, the military did launch a major military operation in the region after Islamic militants carried out a surprise ambush on Egyptian soldiers, killing 16 before driving to Israel, where they were killed in an airstrike. Thousands of Egyptian troops were dispatched to the northern peninsula, but were withdrawn soon afterwards as Egyptian troops are barred from the area under a peace agreement with Israel. The military’s concern that Morsi was not doing enough to stem extremism in the troubled region is shared by Israel, which has increased its surveillance along the Egyptian border over the last two years and is in the process of erecting a wall along the frontier to keep out terrorists and immigrants from Africa who come through Egypt.

This latest drone strike is not the only indication of increased security cooperation between the two former adversaries. On Wednesday, the Egyptian military announced that it had killed 60 alleged Islamist militants in Sinai in the month since Morsi was ousted as a result of “widening terrorist operations”. This is in part due to permission from Israel to insert additional military forces – including assault helicopters – which were formerly restricted by the peace treaty. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon confirmed this arrangement last month,

Since Morsi was ousted, there has been an increase in attacks against security forces in Sinai. Moreover, the Egyptian security service fears that anger at Morsi’s deposition may be exploited by extremists to garner support for violent insurgency: there were mass protests against Morsi before the army stepped in, but he was still democratically elected. His ousting has therefore caused anger among Islamists who feel shut out from the system. It is feared that this frustration could increase violent extremism; a concern shared by the new Egyptian regime and Israel.

The situation in Sinai is volatile and worsening. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the flow of weapons into the peninsula has increased exponentially. The region has become increasingly ungovernable and lawless. Some analysts fear that it is sliding towards fully blown conflict, between jihadists, the Egyptian military, and Israel. Clearly, the two nations have a shared agenda. But even if security cooperation continues to increase, it is highly likely that both governments – aware of the importance of public opinion in Egypt – will retain their official silence on the matter.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.