Both Israel and Iran have sent warships into waters south of Israel. FoxNews reported on Wednesday that Israel had deployed two more warships to its Red Sea border with Egypt; Israel already has an unspecified naval presence in the area. Iran, for its part, was dispatching its 15th fleet to the Red Sea.
An earlier report on Ynet noted that Iran’s 15th fleet comprises a submarine and several warships.
Although it’s an uncertain call, the reports give the impression that Israel’s move came first and Iran’s is a response. As Ynet also reports:
Israeli security sources told the Associated Press on Tuesday that two additional warships have been dispatched…. Another source said that the operation was routine, telling Reuters that “two naval craft have been sent to the Red Sea. This is not unusual.”
As for Iran’s navy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, he told Iranian TV that the Iranian fleet was being deployed for routine patrols and preventing pirate attacks.
Or as he put it: “The presence of Iran’s army in the high seas will convey the message of peace and friendship to all countries.”
Israel’s dual message to AP and Reuters sounds calculated to emphasize its move without unduly, one might say, ruffling the waters. As for Admiral Sayyari’s fraternal tidings, they’re certain not to be read literally in Israel.
With or without an Iranian move, Israel has already been on a special footing since Monday when its chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz ordered a heightened alert throughout southern Israel and particularly near the Israeli-Egyptian border. Civilian roads have been closed and forces stationed at the border in a deployment that has been called unprecedented.
What prompted this full-blown alert was earlier intelligence about a squad of about ten Islamic Jihad terrorists making their way through Egyptian Sinai from Gaza. They were seen as aiming to infiltrate the Israeli-Egyptian border and carry out a terror attack even larger than the one on August 18, when terrorists from another Gaza-based organization, the Popular Resistance Committees, crossed the border and killed eight Israelis.
As DEBKAfile points out, since that attack Israel has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the Gaza terror haven. It was at dawn on August 24 that the Israeli air force killed Ismail al-Asmar, an Islamic Jihad commander, in a missile strike—one of a string of assassinations of Gaza terror leaders that were aimed at restoring Israel’s deterrence after the August 18 attack.
And it was later that day that the Islamic Jihad squad in question set out from Gaza—“turning this equation on its head,” claims DEBKA, “by demonstrating that Israeli attacks on Palestinian terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip bring forth Palestinian reprisals from Sinai.”
Where’s Egypt in all this? Israel has been trying to get Egypt to clamp down—to an extent still constrained by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—on the growing chaos and terror threat in Sinai. Reports in the Egyptian media say the Egyptian military has started operating against the terror hubs there.
DEBKA, for its part, claims such accounts are “pure fiction” and that “the Egyptian army…is sitting on its hands as the jihadists take up assault positions on its side of the Sinai border”—which is exactly what the Egyptian army did at the time of the August 18 attack.
Israel still hopes post-Mubarak Egypt won’t turn into another “Iran.” As for the Iran that already exists, it’s not about, at this point, to get involved on the tactical level should a border skirmish between Israeli forces and Islamic Jihad (a direct Iranian creation and proxy) break out. But its Red Sea naval presence is a reminder to Israel that Iran is the patron of Gaza terror and that the conflict is ultimately on the strategic level with Israel’s survival as the stakes.
The “Arab spring” has already erupted in a hot summer for Israel. With Egypt almost certain to get even less friendly and cooperative, and so long as neither the U.S. nor Israel is prepared to confront Iran as the strategic problem that it is, the fall augurs no relief.