Details of Israel’s investigations into the attack by an Egyptian border policeman at Al-Awja a week ago are still emerging. Mohammed Salah crossed the border and killed three Israeli soldiers before being killed himself. Regardless of the details, though, the incident carries political and security consequences for Israel-Egypt relations.
Israeli conclusions from the attack have so far raised several questions. The area where the attack took place is known to be dangerous, and has witnessed an increase in drug smuggling, so why weren’t more Israeli soldiers on duty? How did the Egyptian policeman walk several kilometres across open desert and not be detected by any aerial surveillance? And why were there no barbed wire fences in position?
Israelis are also wondering why sensors did not work when the border fence was cut by the attacker. Moreover, they are asking if the incident will encourage anti-Israeli occupation forces to carry out similar attacks now that they know that Israeli security measures are so weak.
Security and political circles in Israel have called for greater security cooperation and coordination with Egypt and were quick to stress that the attack would not affect relations with Cairo. The attack took place at a critical time in terms of Egypt’s relationship with Israel, although it is not the first time that Egyptian soldiers have shot at Israelis.
Israeli aircraft and helicopters have been seen flying across Sinai, with the knowledge and consent of the Egyptian government. Complex joint action is being taken to cover the challenges that Egypt does and might face. Meanwhile, the policeman is feted on social media as a hero.
This suggests that the attack at Al-Awja will not pass easily. After nearly fifty years of what has often been a cold peace between the neighbouring countries, the understanding reached since Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came to power in 2013 is deeper than that reached by Israel with his predecessors, especially on security matters.
The relationship between Israel and Egypt is very important for confronting Hamas in Gaza and cooperating on issues related to the entire region. This makes the attack at Al-Awja a not-so-easy challenge for Israel, and an affirmation that there is no real alternative to strategic relations based on the peace agreement with Egypt. This requires careful investigation of the attack and practical lessons to be drawn from it in the broader context.It also shows the importance of bilateral relations, including trust and operational and military cooperation between the security agencies in Israel and Egypt. The attack shed some light on the long years spent developing ties based on mutual security interests, not least the threat of armed insurrection in Sinai, especially by Daesh, which a few years ago posed a strategic threat from Sinai and in the west from Libya, which threatened to paralyse Cairo.
Israelis claim that strategic cooperation led by Sisi has helped to reduce the security threat in Sinai, although it still exists, as was exposed by the recent attack. However, it does not constitute a strategic threat to Egypt or Israel, because the peace agreement and its security implementation contribute to the removal of such threats. The Israeli army has made some troop deployment changes and built border walls, in addition to developing its important security alliance with Egypt, because there is no alternative to strategic relations based on the peace agreement.
Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world with a strong army, air force and navy; it has fought bloody wars with Israel. Today, however, the two countries share common interests that have transformed their relations from severe hostility to essential allies since Sisi seized power. Egypt enjoys internal stability despite economic difficulties. Israelis remember when the Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt for less than a year, and was about to align the country with Turkey and Qatar to strengthen the stable Sunni Muslim camp, which posed a threat to the Zionist state.
Despite this strong political and military alliance, though, it is obvious that security and political cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv has not blunted the hatred that the Egyptian people have for Israel. The attack on the border at Al-Awja was not the first of its kind, and may not be the last, and although the Egyptian policeman may have acted alone, he highlighted the fact that the existence of peace agreements does not mean less hostility towards Israel in Egypt or anywhere else. This tells Israelis that they cannot be satisfied with what they have achieved, even when there is an agreement framework that stabilises the strategic environment. In other words, Israel’s security will only be guaranteed through its armed forces and not through political agreements.
This is a reminder of the real challenges faced by Israel, including the fact that, although this does not seem likely at the present time, we could see Egyptian hostility towards Israel translated into military action. In turn, this requires Israel to prepare for the difficult scenario of another war with Egypt. That is the main lesson to be learnt from the attack at Al-Awja.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.