Green Room

Attacks on Israel: Watch the South

posted at 4:43 pm on August 4, 2010 by

The attacks on Israel in the past week are remarkable for more than their number. No single political development seems to account for all of them. The rocket attacks in the south involved military-grade weapons of a kind rarely seen since before Operation Cast Lead. Those attacks, moreover, affected Jordan as well as Israel’s Negev, and according to some reports included an attack on the UN’s observation force (MFO) in the Sinai.

Tuesday’s clash on the border with Lebanon has gotten the most media attention. As Max Boot observes at Commentary’s “contentions,” UNIFIL’s acknowledgement of the facts points to culpability on the Lebanese side. He’s in broad company speculating that this provocation was intended by Hezbollah as a distraction from the UN tribunal’s impending report on the Rafiq Hariri assassination of 2005.  (See here and here also for good extended treatments of the border clash, including Hezbollah involvement.) Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made an impassioned speech yesterday, within hours of the border skirmish, in which he accused Israel of being behind the assassination and promised retaliation against Israel in the future.

But the rocket attacks near Gaza and in the south – on Ashkelon, which fronts the Mediterranean, as well as on the Gulf of Aqaba resort city of Eilat, and on Aqaba, Jordan – are potentially of greater interest.

The 29 July attack on Ashkelon involved a Grad-type military-grade rocket launched from Gaza. (The Grad, a former-Soviet battlefield-rocket design, is a variant of the generic Katyusha; the 29 July rocket was reportedly of Chinese manufacture.) This profile, reminiscent of rocket attacks in 2008, is an established Hamas attack pattern.

But the 2 August attack on Eilat and Aqaba came from the Sinai. Unlike an earlier rocket attack from Sinai in April 2010, it involved military-grade Grad rockets fired in a salvo, probably from the mountain range north of Sinai’s Taba resort area.

Google Earth map; author annotation

It’s possible the rocket attack from Sinai was mounted by Hamas in a cross-border operation, but I doubt it. This is an incident that must bolster the IDF’s growing concern about a “new front” being opened by global jihadists. The salvo launch may well indicate the use of a military multiple-rocket launcher: not something Hamas could easily sneak into the Sinai.  (The thousands of terrorist rocket attacks on Israel, including those from Gaza since 2005, have more typically been launched from homemade apparatuses rather than from military MRLs; the latter “scoot” handily, but are big and hard to hide.)

 No responsibility has been claimed for the attack – in fact, Hamas has denied it – probably because one of the rockets hit Jordan. The IDF reportedly says the recovered rockets are of Iranian or North Korean manufacture, indicating the backing of a state sponsor (presumably Iran). But there are discrepancies that bear watching, with trying to make a “fingerprint match” to Hamas. It’s not ultimately a very good one.

The DEBKAfile report of a simultaneous attack on the UN MFO in the Sinai (near El-Arish and the border with Gaza) must be approached with skepticism. But another author makes a separate reference to that attack (not sourced to DEBKA); and if it did occur, the tally of attacks on 2 August is increasingly inconsistent with the apparent posture of Hamas: recalcitrant, certainly, but somewhat disorganized, and lacking a clear strategic direction of its own. The emerging focus on the Sinai is beyond the scope of the objective Commentary’s Evelyn Gordon attributes to Hamas in her well-reasoned piece: that is, wringing more concessions from Israel before agreeing to join talks.

But it’s what we would expect from Iran’s ongoing campaign of subversion in Egypt – involving the Sinai in particular – which achieved brief notoriety after an Egyptian security sweep in 2009. (For more on Iran’s long-term objectives, see here and here.)

Meanwhile, the momentum for political change in Egypt, gathering this summer with the Muslim Brotherhood’s endorsement of Mohamed ElBaradei’s opposition effort, makes Egypt a crucial battlefield for the competing Iranian and Arabist visions of regional hegemony. Saudi King Abdullah visited Egypt last week before the regional summit in Beirut, his first stop in a trip seen in Arab eyes as a “fence-mending” effort among Arab nations in advance of a U.S-Iran clash. The day of his arrival in Cairo, a bomb was detonated at an Egyptian residential compound near the country’s embassy in Beirut.

Things are likely to heat up further in the regional competition for Egypt’s future. From the Sinai, terrorists can affect both Israel and Egypt, a fact that Iran’s paramilitary planners have recognized for some time. Sunni guerrillas opposing the Iranian gambit will recognize it too. Iranian and Arab leaders, and the terrorists they sponsor, all anticipate a “coming storm” in the region; it’s not by any means too early to recognize that they are preparing to exploit the opportunities the storm will present.

I agree that Hamas has no intention of good-faith engagement with the peace process. But I don’t think the peace process – or the UN findings on the Hariri assassination – is the only driver of any regional actor’s strategy today.  I think they’re all looking ahead.  And we should be looking south – toward Egypt – as well as north.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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