Deadly border attack could unite, test Egypt and Israel
JERUSALEM — With the relationship between Egypt's new Islamist leader and Israel still in its fragile infancy, the terrorist attack on the border that the two countries share with Gaza over the weekend presented a critical opportunity — and a crucial test.
Several high-ranking officials inside Israel's government and numerous independent experts on Israel-Egypt relations said Monday that the attack — in which masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers Sunday night and then barreled into Israeli territory in a stolen truck and armored vehicle — is the best evidence yet that the two countries are threatened by lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula. Now the question is whether Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, will make the Sinai a priority amid other challenges, and whether Israel will make concessions in modifying the 33-year-old peace treaty between the nations to allow for a more aggressive Egyptian military presence.
"Now it is obvious also to him that there is a real convergence of interests here, and this may get us closer to him," Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said of Morsi.
Hillel Frisch, a political-science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and senior research fellow at its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said the attack underlined the differences between Islamists such as Morsi who support the international system of states and others who are trying to challenge it.
"The jihadists threaten any kind of order, anyone who has power, any kind of incumbency," Frisch said. "It will strengthen Morsi's commitment to be a status-quo actor, which is a big, big thing strategically. He runs a state, and there are greater enemies to the Egyptian state than Israel. In that sense, it's a game-changer."
The attack brought several early signs of cooperation and coordination. An Israeli brigadier general and his Egyptian counterpart met near the border to discuss the investigation. Israel handed over to Egypt the armored car and the bodies of those killed as they tried to enter through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condolence.
But comments by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday included hints of concern.
"I hope that this will be a wake-up call for Egypt regarding the necessity to be sharp and efficient on their side," Barak said after visiting the area.
Netanyahu expressed regret over the killing of the soldiers and said, "It is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border." He quickly added that "when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself."
Morsi declared three days of mourning for the soldiers who were killed and traveled to Sinai with his defense minister, intelligence chief and interior minister. Egyptian security officials had spoken early Monday about a large-scale military operation near Egypt's Rafah crossing into Gaza, but there was little sign of it later in the day.
New details emerged Monday about the attack, which began as the sun fell Sunday. Egypt's military said in a statement that 35 masked gunmen, packed into three Land Cruisers, stormed an Egyptian checkpoint and killed the soldiers as they were sitting down to break their Ramadan fast.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Force, said one of the men then drove a truck, taken from the military outpost and packed with a half-ton of explosives, about a mile to the Israeli border fence, which he blew up along with himself and the vehicle. The armored car, also stolen, then entered Israel, where it was stopped by three Israeli airstrikes that killed six or seven men — most of them carrying explosives on their bodies — as they tried to flee. The operation took 15 minutes.
Egyptian officials have blamed militants in Sinai and said they were aided by Palestinians in Gaza. In its statement, the military called the attackers "enemies of the state" and said that "those who stand behind them must be confronted by force."
But the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political party, posted a statement on its website Monday night saying that Israel's intelligence agency, which it said had sought to "thwart" Egypt's revolution, could be responsible for the attack. The Brotherhood, which was not speaking for the president, said that the attack highlighted the need to "reconsider" the terms of Egypt's treaty with Israel, which restricts the number of troops that Egypt can station in the Sinai.
But several Israeli officials and analysts noted that the so-called military annex to the treaty signed in 1979 was modified two years ago to allow seven additional Egyptian battalions into Sinai and that Egypt has yet to fill that quota.
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