When Palestinian Hamas in the course of a well-planned operation blasted holes in the Gaza-Egyptian border wall on Jan. 22, it did more than open an exit for three-quarters of a- million blockaded Gazans to go shopping.
A swarm of Islamist terrorists gained a new stamping ground in the Sinai Peninsula, a strategic wedge of Egyptian land 61,000 sq. km, linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas and the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. This incursion, the Egyptian security police were clearly unable to check.
Now, the security and intelligence services of Egypt, Israel and Jordan are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources as being in fierce dispute over who was responsible for the crisis and how to pick up the pieces. More importantly, they must decide how to restore security and normalcy to the breached Gaza-Sinai border, which poses new perils to all three, and how to handle 350,000-500,000 Palestinians who refuse to go home from northern Sinai to Gaza.
Jordanian secret services chiefs privately accused president Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman of deliberately generating the crisis to break the blockade Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip in the wake of Hamas’ missile offensive. Amman has complained to Washington that the Egyptians not only created a dangerous precedent with a dire impact on the internal security of many Middle East countries, but exposed the nations bordering on Sinai – Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Egypt itself – to a fresh wave of destabilizing terror.
Our counter-terror sources report that Thursday, Jan. 31, nine days after the Palestinian stampede from Gaza began, the three counter-terror services concurred on the data that some 500 well-armed terrorists are at large in Sinai. They were said to be carrying anti-tank and anti-air weapons, roadside bombs and explosive vests.
Egypt‘s three-belt tactic to keep terrorists at bay
Roughly 300 entered Sinai from the Gaza Strip; the rest infiltrated from Egypt, Sudan and Jordan. Clearly, a number of regional terrorist commands of al Qaeda, Hamas and Iran were collaborating in an operation to take advantage of the chaos Hamas fabricated on the Gazan border and pump a fresh increment of terrorist operatives into Sinai. This places them conveniently for unleashing attacks in Egypt, Jordan and Israel – simply by strolling across any of Sinai’s unfenced borders.
All three, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, have placed their security forces on their highest alert this week.
Egypt’s services have deployed beefed-up counter-terror strength in three security belts on land and another on the Suez Canal, on which naval and police patrols have been stepped up.
Belt 1: Egyptian marine units are deployed in the Suez Canal towns of Ismaila, Port Said, Suez and Alexandria. Roadblocks are posted on the highways connected these towns to Cairo.
Belt 2: Civilian traffic has been discontinued between Egypt and Sinai, including food, other essentials and medicines. The roughly half million Palestinians who invaded Sinai from Gaza have become desperately short of basic necessities. So, too, is the permanent Egyptian population of Sinai, most of them Bedouin.
By Wednesday night, Jan. 31, there had been 42 shooting incidents against Egyptian security police in northern Sinai involving frustrated and hungry civilians.
Belt 3: The northern Sinai town of El Arish, including the outlying military and security installations and the tourist resorts, have been cordoned off by thousands of Egyptian police spaced 15 meters apart.
Belt 4: Internal marine traffic has been halted on the Suez Canal, including the ferry services linking the Canal towns and its two banks. The tunnels running under the Canal and bridges spanning it are closed and policed by the army.
Jordan and Israel lock down southern regions and coasts
The security precautions introduced in Jordan are just as strict.
The regular ferry service has been discontinued from the Hashemite Kingdom’s southern Red Sea port of Aqaba to the Sinai resorts of Nueiba and Sharm el-Sheikh.
Reinforcements have been deployed in southern Jordan between Aqaba and the Saudi border to the south, to pre-empt landings by terrorists sailing in from Sinai aboard rubber dinghies.
Israel too placed the resort-port town of Eilat at its southernmost tip, on the highest terror alert on Wednesday, Jan. 30. According to footprints detected on the Israeli side of the Egyptian Sinai border, three persons had infiltrated Israel from Sinai carrying heavy loads. Israeli security authorities fear they may have brought in bags of explosives.
That same morning, the semi-official Cairo daily Al Ahram, reported that Egyptian security had picked up five Palestinians carrying bomb vests at Taba, 10 km south of Eilat, and on their way to the Israeli resort town.
Three days earlier, as Gazan Palestinians surged into northern Sinai, Israel closed off its southern roads, areas abutting the 220-km unfenced Egyptian border and all border districts from the Mediterranean coast in the west up to the Gulf of Aqaba in the east.
While trading accusations of responsibility for the grave security deterioration in the rugged, semi-inhabited Sinai peninsula, Egyptian and Israeli officials have begun putting their heads together on urgent means of containment.
Although this was officially denied, debkafile confirmed that the defense ministry’s senior security adviser ex-general Amos Gilead, visited Cairo last week for talks with Egypt’s intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman.
They agreed to upgrade the level of their talks. Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak will visit Cairo as soon as Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders Khaled Meshaal, from Damascus, and Mahmoud A-Zahar from Gaza, wind up their meetings in Cairo on the Gaza crisis.