Two Toyota Land Cruisers filled with about 15 well-built gunmen in ski masks and all-black outfits appear seemingly out of nowhere. Behind them is vast, open desert. They approach a group of soldiers huddled around a simple meal as they prepare to break their Ramadan fast. The gunmen open fire, leaving the soldiers with no chance of retrieving their weapons.
This is not an opening scene of a Hollywood action movie. The massacre actually took place at an Egyptian military post in northern Sinai on August 5. The description above was conveyed by a witness, Eissa Mohamed Salama, in a statement made to The Associated Press (AP; Aug 8). The gunmen were well trained. Their overt confidence can only be explained by the fact that “one militant got out a camera and filmed the bodies of the soldiers”.
One is immediately baffled by this. Why would the masked militants wish to document the killings if they were about to embark on what can be considered a suicide mission in Israel? “The gunmen then approached the Israeli border,” with two vehicles, one reportedly a stolen Egyptian armored personnel carrier. The British Broadcasting Corp, citing Israeli officials, reported that one of the vehicles “exploded on the frontier”, while the other broke through the Israeli border, “traveled about 2 kilometers into Israel before being disabled by the Israeli air force” (BBC News Online, Aug 7). According to the BBC report, citing Israeli sources, there were about 35 gunmen in total, all clad in traditional Bedouin attire.
Their mission into Israel was suicidal, since, unlike in Sinai, they had nowhere to escape. But who would embark on such a logistically complex mission, document it on camera, and then fail to take responsibility for it? The brazen attack seemed to have little military wisdom, but it did possess a sinister political logic.
Only 48 hours before the attack, the media were awash with reports about the return of electricity in the Gaza Strip. The impoverished Strip’s generators have not run at full capacity for about six years, since Hamas was elected. The Israeli siege and subsequent wars killed and wounded thousands, but they failed to bend Gaza’s political will. For Gazans, the keyword to their survival in the face of Israel’s blockade was “Egypt”.
The Egyptian revolution on January 25, 2011, carried a multitude of meanings for all sectors of Egyptian society, and the Middle East at large. For Palestinians in Gaza, it heralded the possibility of a lifeline. The nearly 1,000 tunnels dug to assist in Gaza’s survival would amount to nothing compared with a decisive Egyptian decision to end the siege by opening the Rafah border.
In fact, a decision was taking place in stages. Hamas, which governs Gaza, was a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is now the leading political force in the country and, despite the military’s obduracy, it has managed to claim the country’s presidency as well.
In late July, a high-level Hamas delegation met in Cairo. All the stress and trepidation of the last 16 months seemed to have come to an end, as Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, his deputy Musa Abu Marzouq, and other members of the group’s politburo met with President Mohammed Morsi. Egypt’s official news agency reported Morsi’s declarations of full support “for the Palestinian nation’s struggle to achieve its legitimate rights”. According to Reuters, Morsi’s top priority was achieving unity “between Hamas and Fatah, supplying Gaza with fuel and electricity and easing the restrictions on the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt”.
Juxtapose that scene—where a historical milestone has finally been reached—with an Agence France-Presse photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, standing triumphantly next to a burned Egyptian vehicle that was reportedly stolen by the Sinai gunmen. The message here is that only Israel is serious about fighting terror. Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s accompanying article started with this revelation: “Israel shared some of the intelligence it received with the Egyptian army prior to the incident, but there is no evidence Egypt acted on the information.” This was meant to humiliate Egypt’s military further.
Naturally, Israel blamed Gaza, even though there is no material evidence to back such accusations. Some in Egypt’s media jumped on the opportunity to blame Gaza for Egypt’s security problems in Sinai as well. The loudest among them were completely silent when, on August 18, 2011, Israel killed six Egyptian soldiers in Sinai.
Then, Israel carried out a series of strikes against Gaza, killing and wounding many, while claiming that Gaza was a source of attacks against Israeli civilians. Later, the Israeli media dismissed the connection as flawed. No apologies for the Gaza deaths, of course, and AP, Reuters and others are still blaming Palestinians for the attack near Eilat last year. Then, Palestinian factions opted not to escalate to spare Egypt an unwanted conflict with Israel during a most sensitive transition.
None of that seems relevant now. Egypt is busy destroying the tunnels, continuing efforts that were funded by the US a few years ago. It also closed the Gaza-Egypt crossing, and is being “permitted” by Israel to use attack helicopters in Sinai to hunt for elusive terrorists. Within days, Gaza’s misfortunes were multiplied and once more Palestinians are pleading their case.
Israeli officials and analysts are, of course, beside themselves with anticipation. The opportunity is simply too great not to be utilized fully. Commenting in Egypt-based OnIslam, Abdelrahman Rashdan wrote that according to the Israeli intelligence scenario, “Iranians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and al-Qaeda operatives all moved from Lebanon to attack Egypt [and] Israel and defend Syria.”
In Western mainstream media, few asked who benefits from all of this—from once more isolating Gaza, shutting down the tunnels, severing Egyptian-Palestinian ties, embroiling the Egyptian military in a security nightmare in Sinai, and much more.
The Muslim Brotherhood website had an answer. It suggested that the incident “can be attributed to the Mossad”. True, some Western media reported the statement, but not with any degree of seriousness or due analysis. The BBC even offered its own context: “Conspiracy theories are popular across the Arab world,” ending the discussion with an Israeli dismissal of the accusation as “nonsense”. Case closed. But it shouldn’t be.
Before embarking on a wild goose chase in Sinai, urgent questions must be asked and answered. Haphazard action will only make things worse for Egypt, Palestine and Sinai’s long-neglected Bedouin population.