Israel’s deployment of an Iron Dome anti-missile battery in Eilat Sunday, Aug. 19, came five days after two Grad missiles were launched against its southernmost town. They exploded harmlessly.DEBKAfile’s military sources report they were primarily a warning to Egypt from al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorists to hold off even its minimal raids and arrests of suspected terrorists in northern Sinai.
The Egyptians have meanwhile moved a battalion of 19 Egyptian M60A-3 tanks into the peninsula, using the Islamist attacks on Egyptian and Israeli military targets of Aug. 8 as their pretext for violating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty’s military protocols. Fearing the tanks are there to stay, Israel has asked the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department in Washington to intervene with Cairo and get them withdrawn.
Cairo never requested or received Israel’s permission to bring the tanks over.
Only when Jerusalem complained to Washington did Egyptian liaison officers contact IDF officers. They did not ask directly for permission only skirted around the tank issue by consulting IDF officers on the effectiveness of a tank offensive on the armed Islamists’ mountain strongholds, which Cairo shows no other sign of seriously contemplating. For now, Egypt is counting on Israel not making too much of a fuss so as not to be accused of obstructing efforts to fight terrorists.
On the diplomatic front, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and new Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sissi filed a complaint of their own in Washington. They accused Israel of frequently breaching the same military protocols over the years, each time the IDF used tanks around the Philadelphi pocket, Rafah and the Kerem Shalom crossing to fight off Palestinian terrorist attacks and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
Those enclaves are marked D in the peace accords and barred to heavy weapons, like Area C in North Sinai on the Egyptian side of the border.
Israel is concerned that the Egyptians intend keeping the tanks on the Israeli border permanently or even adding some more as part of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics for eroding the military clauses of the peace treaty with Israel until they are meaningless.
The Egyptian tank issue weighing on Cairo, Washington and Jerusalem has become additionally entangled in several broader issues: the war on terror, Cairo’s bid for lavish economic aid, President Barack Obama’s outlook on the Muslim Brotherhood’s grab for power in Cairo and signs that Egypt's new rulers are considering cozying up to Tehran.
1. Egypt keeps on avoiding its promised major counter-terror offensive in Sinai even after losing 16 troops in a terrorist attack. Its actions are limited to small police raids on suspects, a couple of arrests here and there and impounding computers. Confrontations with armed gunmen and operations against their command posts are systematically avoided.
Indeed the armed Salafist gangs felt safe enough last Wednesday to raise their heads again and fire two Grad missiles against Israeli southernmost town of Eilat. According toDEBKAfile’s exclusive, counter-terror sources, Cairo got the message: Even minor police raids must stop or else the Islamists would seriously target Eilat and other parts of southern Israel, further complicating Egypt’s relations with the US and Israel.
The warning was taken seriously by the IDF high command, which Sunday night, Aug. 19, moved an Iron Dome missile defense battery over to Eilat.
2. Washington for its part is quietly pushing President Morsi to make good on his promise of a military operation to root out al Qaeda affiliates from central Sinai. DEBKAfile’s Washington sources report that the Egyptians don’t say this outright, but are hinting that they are waiting for President Barack Obama to order the release of substantial aid funds before embarking on this counter-terror offensive or withdrawing their tanks from Sinai. They are very clear about the amounts that would satisfy them: A grant of half a billion dollars from the United States and a US guarantee for an International Monetary Fund loan of $4.6 billion.
Our sources report that the Muslim Brotherhood regime needs an urgent influx of cash to pay public sector wages on Sept. 1.
3. President Morsi is holding another move in abeyance pending the Obama administration’s response to his urgent financial needs. He has not yet replied to Tehran’s official invitation for him to represent Egypt at the non-aligned summit of Muslim nations taking place in the Iranian capital on Aug. 30. The inference is that if Washington meets Cairo’s economic aid requests, Morsi with refuse Iran’s invitation; but if it falls short, the Muslim Brotherhood will start a process of rapprochement with Iran, the first since Islamist revolutionaries seized control of Tehran in1979-80.