An assortment of terrorist groups, the Palestinian Hamas, Jihad Islami, Fatah-al Aqsa Brigades, and Popular Resistance Committees – plus al Qaeda – overran northern Sinai in the space of 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 23-24.
Spearheading their advance with a surge from Gaza of several hundred thousand Palestinian men, women and children, they snatched an enclave 50 km long, 55 km square in northern Sinai.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report: A new terrorist stronghold was quickly established on Egyptian territory in an area adjoining the Gaza Strip and twice its size.
Egyptian border police were helpless to stop the pressing human mass on the move from Gaza after Hamas blew up the concrete border wall Tuesday night. But even more remarkable was the inertia of American, Egyptian and Israeli governments at civilian and military levels – even though they ought not to have been surprised. They had received due warning from US and Israel intelligence services. Yet they were unable to appreciate what was happening until events had veered out of control.
Sunday, Jan. 20, debkafile reported that Hamas was planning to crash the Rafah border wall dividing Gaza from Egyptian Sinai.
By Thursday, Jan. 24, Egyptian forces had pulled out of northern Sinai and redeployed south of El Arish, Bir Lhafan and Abu Aweigila, leaving Hamas and its allies in control. When they learned from the Egyptian high command that Hamas had begun moving some of its elite units into the new stronghold, American forces were ordered to take their equipment and move out of the Multi-force Organization base at Al Gura northeast of al Arish.
Mubarakcannot afford to fight Palestinians
This force monitors Sinai’s demilitarization under the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Washington and Cairo began discussing evacuating the entire base and its 400 multinational personnel, for fear of Hamas and al Qaeda missile fire and shelling.
Egyptian forces were ordered to hold the line south of El Arish and prevent the Palestinian tide from spilling over towards the Suez Canal and the Palestinian communities in the towns of Ismailia and Port Said.
They were also told the block off the path of al Qaeda cells to the new enclave, after the terrorist group had called up reinforcements in Sinai and Egypt.
While this was going on, officials in Washington, Cairo and Jerusalem presented the incident as a huge demonstration of hungry, stir-crazy Gazan Palestinians, who would disperse quietly if left alone. Hamas & Co. including al Qaeda took good advantage of this respite and the non-resistance of Egyptian troops to consolidate their grip on their new bastion.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources advise treating this new situation as irreversible.
To dig them out, Egypt would need at least 30,000 soldiers backed by air, naval and armored units. This would contravene the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, but even if such obstacle could be overcome, Cairo would never on any account let itself be drawn into battle with Palestinians in view of the catastrophic impact it would have on President Hosni Mubarak‘s standing at home and the Arab world. Furthermore, the Egyptian in army does not have strength on this scale ready at short notice and would have to call up reserves.
By Thursday night, it was clear that the Palestinian terrorists and al Qaeda would not be dislodged from northern Sinai within the foreseeable future. At best, Cairo might come to a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas over the lost territory.
Iran, Syria, al Qaeda acquire a Mediterranean beachhead
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s strategic experts outline the key implications of the week’s momentous events:
- The Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami, which depend on Iran, Syria and Hizballah for support in weapons, training and cash, have grabbed from Egypt a large section of northern Sinai. This means that Iran, Syria and Hamas’ partner, al Qaeda, have established a beachhead at a key Middle East crossroads. It stands athwart Israel, Egypt and Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean coast, within operating distance of the Suez Canal.
Only six months ago, the United States by dint of an airlift of weapons to the Lebanese army thwarted a joint Syrian military intelligence-al Qaeda-linked bid at the Palestinian camp of Nahar al-Bard to establish a similar forward position on Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. Hundreds died in that attempt. This time, the coup was achieved without the loss of a single terrorist life.
- Al Qaeda, which in the last two years depended on certain Bedouin nomadic elements for its foothold in Sinai, has acquired a stable territorial base on Egyptian soil. A well-informed al Qaeda expert put it this way to DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
“Osama bin Laden’s forces have laid the first bricks of a Mediterranean Waziristan.”
- The Bush administration’s Palestinian policy, fashioned by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to afford the president the legacy of Middle East peacekeeper, has crashed. Hamas proved that its leaders Khaled Meshaal, prime minister Ismail Haniya, military chief Muhammad Jabari, and Siad Siyam, Hamas liaison officer with Tehran and the architect of the Northern Sinai grab, are the Palestinians’ true and faithful benefactors. They succeeded in showing up as of no use to the Palestinian people Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority and his prime minister Salam Fayyad, linchpins of Rice’s Palestinian initiative.
- Cairo suffered the most unforeseen jolt. Mubarak faced a humiliating comedown from his role as the force with the most influence over Hamas and the clout for bringing the feuding Palestinian factions together, to the only Arab nation to lose a chunk of its sovereign territory to a paramilitary Palestinian terrorist group.
“Starving Palestinians” spend tens of millions shopping
Seven months earlier that same group seized the Gaza Strip from the Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. This suggests an intriguing point: While Hamas poses as the most militant force fighting Israel, all its conquests have so far been confined to Arab territory, which raises questions about the Islamist fundamentalists’ next target.
5. For Israel, the political and military blow was devastating.
Its military and economic siege for breaking the back of the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip has become an exercise in futility. With minimal effort, Hamas opened the way for the Palestinian population to reach the shops and markets of Egyptian El Arish, which they emptied in a few hours and returned home with bulging bags and full containers and no interference.
While Mubarak spoke of the “starving Palestinians” of Gaza, and the world of “a humanitarian crisis”, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians spent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in a few hours’ intensive shopping.
The military defensive system around Gaza, in which Israel had invested $1.5 bn dollars, became superfluous. Hamas, which on two days last week fired 102 missiles at Israeli civilian targets, appeared to have abandoned its offensive this week. Its center of operations moved to Sinai, and was directed against Egypt.
Furthermore, the Palestinian extremists are now able to bypass the closely-monitored Gazan border and access Israel through the sparsely-guarded Egyptian-Israeli frontier for hit and run attacks. They can then escape out of Israel’s reach across the border to their new base in Egypt.