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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

ISIS Worries about a Hamas-Egypt Detente

Filed under: Egypt, Hamas, ISIS, Palestinians

In two recent incidents, Islamic State operatives fired rockets at Israel.

In the first incident, on February 6, 2017, a small pro-ISIS Salafi group in the Gaza Strip fired a single rocket; two days later on February 8, 2017, four rockets were fired from Sinai at the town of Eilat.

Three of the rockets aimed at Eilat were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, and there were no casualties in either incident.

Members of Islamic State, reportedly in Gaza.
ISIS fighters purported to be in Gaza.

A statement issued by the Islamic State branch in Sinai, known as Wilayat Sina’a (Sinai Province), said that “the war with the Israeli enemy has begun.”

Why did the Islamic State, which is fighting an all-out war against the Egyptian army in northern Sinai, decide at this point to open an additional front with Israel?

The previous incident of rocket fire at Israel from Sinai was in July 2015, also with no casualties.

The Rocket Fire from Gaza

Regarding the first of the two recent incidents, the explanation is apparently quite simple. In an effort to placate Egypt, Hamas has lately begun hunting down operatives of the Salafi jihadist, Islamic State-affiliated organizations in Gaza.

So far the Hamas security forces have arrested about 350 Salafi operatives in the Gaza Strip.

The detainees include some who are wanted by the Egyptian security forces on suspicion of terror activity in Sinai.

The Salafi groups apparently want to cause damage to Hamas and are goading Israel into attacking Hamas for violating the ceasefire agreement that the two sides reached after Operation Protective Edge. Hence, the rockets were fired from Gaza in expectation that Israel would hit back militarily against Hamas, which is the sovereign in the strip.

The relations between Hamas and Wilayat Sina’a in northern Sinai have also deteriorated seriously.

Recently senior Wilayat Sina’a figures have begun referring to Hamas operatives as “infidels.”

Hamas has decided to prioritize relations with Egypt over ties with Wilayat Sina’a. The Hamas leadership has reached the conclusion that, in terms of its interests, it has much more to gain from cooperation with Egypt than from cooperation with Wilayat Sina’a.

For Hamas, the main bonus of improved relations with Egypt is the opening of the Rafah crossing and a significant easing of the blockade on Gaza. That, in turn, strengthens Hamas’ rule in the strip.

Last week, Wilayat Sina’a issued a pronouncement that harshly condemned Hamas. It proclaimed that “Hamas is an ally of Iran that keeps a ceasefire with the Jews while it fights Islamic State warriors.”

The declaration accused Hamas of torturing Islamic State operatives in its Gaza prisons and claimed that “there is no difference between Hamas and Fatah because both are like dogs that fight over the same corpse under the jackboots of the [Israeli] occupation.”

The Rocket Fire from Sinai at Eilat

The rocket fire at Eilat from Sinai must be regarded seriously, taking into account that launches at Israel from Sinai may continue.

Recently al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations have stepped up accusations that the Islamic State is Israel’s handiwork. They charge that it only fights Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and carries out attacks against Christians in the United States and Europe by using “lone wolves” while leaving Jews and Israel – precisely the Jewish state that is the enemy of Islam – outside the campaign.

The Islamic State is in trouble in Iraq, Syria, and northern Sinai. By directing its fire at Israel, it seeks to show its supporters that it still has great power and views Israel as its number-one enemy.

This propaganda by rocket fire at Israel can also help it boost the numbers of recruits to its ranks.

The group’s declaration of war against Israel is not serious because Israel is much more powerful. Undoubtedly, Wilayat Sina’a can occasionally “drip” rocket fire at Israel for purposes of propaganda and staying in the media spotlight.


Israeli-Egyptian Security Coordination

Israel is conducting very close security coordination with Egypt in fighting Islamic State terror in northern Sinai.

According to foreign reports, Egypt is supported by the Israeli air force in attacking Islamic State targets in Sinai.

The Egyptian army has long been waging a large-scale military campaign, called Hak al-Shahid, against the Islamic State in Sinai.

On February 10, 2017, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba’a published a report on Islamic State terror in Sinai by General Muhammad Freij el-Shahat, head of Egyptian Military Intelligence.

The report was submitted as part of an Egyptian army cultural event in which President Sisi participated.

General el-Shahat pointed to close cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State and claimed the latter had a plan to establish a radical Islamic emirate in the town of Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. The plan had been revealed in the group’s terror attack on the Egyptian army on July 1, 2015.

The general said the Egyptian army had thwarted the plan with help from the Egyptian air force, and as a result, the Islamic State had lost 50 percent of its fighters.

He provided data that so far the Egyptian army had killed 500 Islamic State terrorists, destroyed 130 vehicles, and seized 1,025 tons of the group’s explosives.

He set forth the three main elements of Egypt’s strategy for the war on terror in Sinai:

  1. Monitoring the group’s terror networks, dismantling its support bases, and depleting its funding sources while augmenting the full control of Egypt’s borders.
  2. Carrying out arrests and raids in cooperation with the civilian police and the residents in eastern Sinai as part of the Hak al-Shahid military campaign, with the aim of uprooting the sources of terror in northern Sinai.
  3. Launching projects for the full development of Sinai aimed at improving its residents’ living conditions and eradicating the factors that lead to terror.1

According to Israeli security sources, the Egyptian leadership is concerned about the rocket fire from Sinai at Eilat because it does not want to be seen as losing control of the territory.

These sources say Israel and Egypt are now discussing the most effective military measures for eliminating the Islamic State threat in Sinai.

With the rocket fire at Eilat, the Islamic State succeeded to put Israel in the equation and to puncture the image that Egypt is trying to convey that the security situation in Sinai is under its full control. The Islamic State also managed to give the impression that it is actually fighting two countries, Egypt and Israel.

It should not be ruled out that the more that the group’s situation in the different fronts in Syria, Iraq, and against the Egyptian army deteriorates, it will again try to launch rockets at Israel from Sinai.

The Egyptians do not intend to take the matter in stride. Amid pressure from the Israeli direction, it can reasonably be assumed that we will soon see aggressive, intensified Egyptian action against the Islamic State branch in northern Sinai, and possibly even targeted assassinations of senior Wilayat Sina’a figures.

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