Rephidim, Amalek then: Bir Gafgafa, ISIS now
They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The Lord said to Moses, take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord. Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword. (Exodus 17)
About 3,200 years later, Moses would not have recognized Rephidim. In 1967 it was called Bir Gafgafa and was the site of the Egyptian Air Force’s biggest air facility in Sinai, known as “Egyptian Air Force Base 244.”
From there, Egyptian ruler Gemal Abdul Nasser declared that year: “If Rabin wants war, let’s go!”
And so when the Israeli Air Force preemptively wiped out Nasser’s air force on the ground at the outset of the Six-Day war, Bir Gafgafa was hit first. Rephidim was next transformed into Baha 3, the main Israeli Air Force operations base in Sinai during the War of Attribution and the Yom Kippur war. It was supported 8 kilometers away by a radar and electronic warfare station.
But then, Rephidim aka Bir Gafgafa stepped back into history in its next reincarnation as the very first base from which Israeli withdrew in late 1979 after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords, Israel’s first peace pact with an Arab nation.
Another 37 years went by and in 2017 Rephidim now serves another Egyptian President, Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi, for his life-and-death struggle with the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate.
The Egyptian Air Force is in the course of transforming the small air field there into the largest air base in Egypt, this time with Israel’s concurrence. The base is being tailored to serve a wide variety of warplanes, attack helicopters and UAVs, with long runways, hangars and storage depots for bombs, missiles and fuel.
The Egyptian have built an enormous hangar 70x57meters for housing long-range Wing Loong UAVs purchased from China, which are 9 meters long with a 14-meter wing spread. The Wing Loongs are also being deployed at the Uthman Air base in the Western Desert just 68km from the Libyan border.
The huge base will also have a large civilian passenger terminal at its northeastern end to serve the large army contingents deployed in Sinai. Today the 2nd and 3rd Armies are waging war against terror in Sinai supported by Border Guard units which are undertaking special training in anti-terror warfare.
Rephidim is today hemmed in by packs of the new Amalek, the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis which has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi El-Sisi and is battling Egypt under his direction. The base is accessible only by air or convoys escorted by armored vehicles.
But El-Sisi has big plans for defeating them, debkafile’s military sources report. Bir Gafgafa’s mission is to provide the Egyptian forces fighting in Sinai with a shield, as well as securing the Suez, one of the world’s most important waterways, against ISIS attack.
It will also serve as a hub for coordinating air operations over Sinai and the Libyan border. It is vitally important to prevent the jihadist networks based in ungoverned Libya and the lawless heartland of the Sinai Peninsula from reaching Egypt’s main cities.
The importance of this mission was demonstrated this week. On April 9, President El-Sisi reported that three gangs of terrorists had infiltrated the country from Libya and sent two suicide bombers to blow up two Coptic churches celebrating Palm Sunday, taking the lives of 45 people and injuring 150.
The jihadist menace points more than one way. The next day, Israel closed the Taba crossing into Egyptian Sinai to Israeli holidaymakers bound for the beach resorts, after its security services had received intelligence of an imminent ISIS death-cum-abduction attack afoot for the 10,000 Israeli trippers.