Gaza-based terrorist groups attacked Israel for four days before deciding it was time for a “temporary ceasefire” on Monday, though rockets continued to fall. The Israelis limited their response, keenly aware that a conflict could play into the hands of Syria and further deteriorate relations with Egypt. Israel finds itself in a precarious position. It cannot afford to ignore the forces seeking its destruction, nor can it afford to try to crush them.
On August 18, eight Israelis were killed in Eilat in an attack that U.S. intelligence tentatively believes was the work of a new Al-Qaeda affiliate in Egypt named Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. The Popular Resistance Committees helped out logistically, and the pro-Al-Qaeda Jaish al-Islam also had a role. Five of the attackers were killed out of a group of up to 24 operatives. After the attack, a statement from Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula was distributed that stated its goals: Create a Sharia state in the Sinai Peninsula, end unfair treatment of the Bedouins, and force Egypt to scrap the peace treaty with Israel and wage war on the side of Hamas.
A border clash between Israeli and Egyptian forces ensued when the Israelis pursued the attackers. Three Egyptian soldiers were killed, and another two later died from their wounds. The Egyptian government was outraged, and threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel. The Egyptians decided against doing so after Israel said it “deeply regrets” the Egyptian casualties and will start a formal inquiry to determine the facts of the incident.
The Israeli response to the terrorist attack was limited to air strikes in Gaza against the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas immediately declared that the ceasefire was over, and the other Gaza-based terrorist groups, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, followed suit. Israel was hesitant to escalate the situation, deciding it is best to delay conflict while the missile defense system known as the Iron Dome is expanded. The Israelis were also concerned that hostilities could help stabilize the Syrian regime and strengthen the Islamist currents within the Arab Spring, especially within Egypt. The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, accused the government of treason for passing intelligence to Israel. About 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt staged a protest outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, where a senior Brotherhood member said that killing Zionists on Egyptian soil is justified. At the protest, demonstrators were seen on TV with signs bearing the swastika and even saying, “the gas chambers are ready.”
On Monday, Hamas and the other Gaza-based terrorist groups announced a “temporary ceasefire.” Of course, they’d never agree to a permanent ceasefire with a state they are determined to eliminate. It is believed that the Egyptian government demanded that the terrorists cease their attacks on Israel. It is possible that Israel will agree to changes to the peace treaty with Egypt so that the Egyptians can deploy greater force to the Sinai to combat the Al-Qaeda elements that have taken shelter there. This may satisfy the less extreme forces on the Egyptian political scene that favor adjusting the peace treaty, rather than ending it, as the Islamists want to.
Egypt’s decision to not bring home its ambassador to Israel and to pressure the terrorists in Gaza are positive developments, but the political environment in Egypt is so toxic that a confrontation with Israel is inevitable. The Muslim Brotherhood seeks Israel’s destruction. A top official in the secular Wafd Party, the biggest competition for the Brotherhood, questions the Holocaust and touts 9⁄11 conspiracy theories alleging the involvement of the CIA and Mossad. The current military regime is trying to smooth out ties with Iran, and has opened the border crossing to Gaza. A general has confirmed performing “virginity checks” on female protesters, and when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought to reconcile with Islamic Jihad, they met in Cairo.
The United Nations’ vote on Palestinian statehood next month is a golden opportunity for the enemies of Israel. The Israeli Defense Minister fears a “diplomatic tsunami,” as dozens of countries unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. The resulting crisis for Israel will strengthen the Islamists within the Arab Spring, and force the non-Islamists to prove their anti-Israeli (and most likely, their anti-American) credentials. The Syrian regime and Hamas will appreciate any confrontation that follows in the hopes of rallying domestic support. The Muslim Brotherhood could not be any happier about the timing of this impending crisis, as elections are due to be held in Tunisia and Egypt in October.
The events over the last week are a testament to Israel’s catch-22. It must defend its citizens from attack, but conflict creates the political environment where its worst enemies can most prosper. For Israel, things are quickly going from bad to worse.