Strike shows touchy Israel-Egypt ties

By Dan Williams and Yasmine Saleh, Reuters

JERUSALEM/CAIRO — Just as they were preparing to launch their rocket across the border into Israel on Friday, four Islamist guerrillas in Egypt were killed by a missile. Al-Qaida blamed Israel for the attack in the Egyptian Sinai near Gaza, where there has been a decade of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel dismissed reports of its responsibility and said it respected Egypt’s sovereignty. Egypt’s armed forces, struggling to impose order after they toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last month but wary of upsetting Egyptians by appearing to cooperate with Israel, said Israel was not involved. They said the Rafah strike came from an Egyptian helicopter as part of efforts to crack down on al-Qaida in Sinai, a lawless desert peninsula that is home to an increasing number of militants who are also a threat to stability in Egypt. However, sources briefed on Israeli-Egyptian relations and military experts said there must have been cooperation. “Both Israel and Egypt were coordinating closely on Rafah this time around. I very much doubt that anything was done outside the framework of that coordination,” one source who declined to be identified by name or nationality told Reuters. The source said that in the hours leading up to the airstrike, the security services of both countries had been working together to thwart a jihadi threat in the Rafah area.

The source would not elaborate on the threat, but noted that, exactly a year ago, Islamist gunmen killed 16 Egyptian border policemen in the same area, commandeered one of their armoured cars and smashed through the nearby border with Israel. The episode ended when the Israeli air force bombed the vehicle. Other sources said Israel had indeed carried out the strike with Egypt’s consent or suggested Egypt did the shooting, but with Israel’s help.

Crowded Skies Playing down Israel’s role in the missile strike, the source noted that in recent weeks Egypt has sent Apache helicopter gunships on patrol over Rafah. The choppers have strayed into Gazan airspace on occasion.

On Sunday, Egyptian military sources said army helicopters killed 15 jihadis in overnight sorties elsewhere in Sinai, which has been kept largely demilitarized since a 1979 peace deal.

Israel regularly flies its own Apaches, as well as other military aircraft, on its own side of the border barely 7 km from the site of Friday’s airstrike.

“My first thought when I heard about it was that this probably came from a helicopter,” the source said. “It could have been an Egyptian helicopter, or maybe an Israeli helicopter. Because of the proximity of the jurisdictions I reckon a casual viewer would have trouble telling them apart.” Two Egyptian security sources said the strike was carried out by an Israeli drone, with the knowledge and cooperation of the Egyptian authorities. The jihadi group which lost four rocket crewmen also said Israel used a drone against them.

Cairo has boosted cooperation with Israel since Mursi’s July 3 ouster, asking its neighbor to ready drones near the border in case the Egyptian army needed them to help fight militants in the Sinai, one of the Egyptian security sources said. Part of Israel’s reticence over Friday’s incident could be due to the fact it has never confirmed having armed drones, though it openly uses the pilotless planes for surveillance.