Israeli military sources reported Friday, July 12, that, after an Egyptian Apache gunship flew over the Gaza Strip, an Israeli Air Force control tower notified the Egyptian Air Force that the gunship had strayed off-course. This sort of interchange further testified to the quiet Israeli-Egyptian cooperation afoot in recent days in combating the upsurge of terrorism in Sinai posed by armed Salafists linked to Al Qaeda and the radical Palestinian Hamas.
debkafile’s military sources add a correction this picture: The Egyptian helicopter was not off-course; it was on a mission to block the two-way inter-terror traffic ongoing between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. It came from the helicopter base which the Egyptian army established this week at the airport of El Arish in northern Sinai, after first obtaining Israel’s consent (as per their 1979 peace treaty). El Arish is closed to civilian air traffic for the time being.
The gunships have given the Egyptian army the capacity to prevent Hamas operatives heading out of the Gaza Strip to reinforce the armed Salafist gangs of Sinai, while also drying up the flow of smuggled missiles from Sinai into Gaza.
For the first time, Egyptian forces in Sinai were able Friday to use the Apaches to strike Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, on the one hand, and reach Salafist strongholds and al Qaeda cells in the precipitous Jabal Al-Halal mountain area of central Sinai, on the other.
Before the gunships arrived, Egyptian security forces managed to seal off arms smuggling routes through Sinai to and from the Palestinian enclave, and strike a number of Salafist bases of attack against Egyptian forces in North Sinai. But until now, they were unable to cut down Islamist violence against Egyptian military targets in the El Arish area.
Friday, Islamist gunmen again shot up an Egyptian army checkpoint and military vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades, killing an Egyptian officer and wounding several soldiers and police officers.
The Cairo daily Al Ahram disclosed Friday that “Sinai army helicopters destroyed three armored vehicles.” This was the first time any Egyptian source had revealed that at least one of the Islamist groups terrorizing Sinai – Salafists or Hamas – had acquired armored vehicles. Clearly, the lawless groups of Sinai have also upgraded their tools of war.
Thursday, July 11, debkafile disclosed Israel's green light for big Egyptian counter-terror Sinai offensive, after Islamists fail to assassinate Egyptian general:
Israel Thursday July 11 approved a major Egyptian offensive for curbing the mounting aggression in Sinai of armed Salafis gangs, Muslim Brotherhood raiders and Hamas terrorists. A day earlier, Egypt’s Second Army commander, Maj.-Gen. Ahmad Wasfi, who is assigned to lead the offensive, escaped unhurt from an attempt on his life. Some of his bodyguards and soldiers were killed.
Maj.-Gen. Wasfi arrived in Sinai just four days ago to set up headquarters in the northern town of El Arish. He was targeted for the first attempt by radical Islamists to murder a high-ranking Egyptian general. As a close associate of Defense Minister Gen. Fattah El-Sisi, Wasfi took part in the military coup which ousted President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on July 3.
Around 30 Islamist gunmen laid in ambush for his convoy Wednesday, debkafile's sources report. As the cars drove past Sheikh Zuwayed, southwest of El Arish, they came under a hail of RPG anti-tank rockets and explosive devices. A minivan then drove the length of the convoy shooting heavy machine guns and armor-piercing bullets, trapping the Egyptian troops and officers in the blazing vehicles and gunning down those who tried to escape.
A fierce shootout ensued in which a number of attackers suffered losses, Egyptian military sources say. The minivan’s driver was captured and is under interrogation.
Tuesday, at the same location, two buses carrying Colombian peacemakers serving with the multinational force-MFO at the Sheikh Zuwayed base were also waylaid and shot up.
Of deep concern to the Egyptian and Israeli high commands is the Salafist assailants’ prior knowledge of the timing and route taken by Gen. Wasfi’s convoy in Sinai, because it means that Islamist terrorists have penetrated Egypt’s military apparatus in Sinai and gained an inside track on its activities.
With Israel’s consent (in line with the 1979 peace treaty), the Egyptian army last week withdrew substantial strength from the Suez Canal towns of Port Said and Ismailia and deployed the troops in Sinai ahead of the offensive.
On the other side of the Sinai border, Israeli Defense Forces are heavily deployed along the Sinai and Gaza border fences and in the southernmost sector of Eilat.
They are on high alert on intelligence that the armed Islamists plan to retaliate for an Egyptian assault by attacking Israel.
There is also concern that such attacks would draw in radical Palestinian Hamas fighters. They have nothing to lose after their Muslim Brotherhood patrons in Cairo were overthrown and have little to expect from the army. Indeed, the generals in Cairo suspect Hamas of abetting the Brotherhood’s declared “uprising” by organizing a center of armed resistance in Sinai as its launching base for a combined Islamist revolt against the new regime in Egypt.
Their suspicions were confirmed by the placards of Mohamed Morsi alongside black al Qaeda flags affixed to the armed minivans used by the Salafists.
For some days, Egyptian troops have been working non-stop to block the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip used hitherto to secrete weapons and fighters into Gaza. But now, the Egyptians are concerned to cut down the traffic of fighting men and weapons moving in the opposite direction to reinforce the Sinai Salafists.
A senior Egyptian official said Thursday that at least 150 Ezz a-Din al-Qassam operatives (members of the Gaza-based Hamas military wing) were seen heading into Sinai via the tunnels. Over the past few days, Egyptian security forces have killed and arrested around 200 militants in the Sinai Peninsula, killed 32 Hamas operatives and arrested another forty-five.
By joining up with fellow Islamists, debkafile reports, Hamas hopes to salvage something from its debacle in Cairo. An attack on Israel or even the threat of terrorist operations may be used as the Palestinian radicals’ bargaining chip with the Egyptian army for improving their position.