Israel bolsters security along the Sinai Desert as Egypt roils

An Israeli flag, left,  flutters next to an Egyptian one at the Nitzana crossing, along Israel's border with Egypt's Sinai desert, as seen from the Israeli side on Tuesday. Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

TEL AVIV – With Egypt still convulsing after the brutal crackdown on Islamist supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi last week, Israel has a wary eye on its neighbor and is quietly bolstering its own security.

The soldiers who are now patrolling Israel's border with Egypt have the calm focus particular to elite infantrymen. For many years a peaceful border between Egypt and Israel, the Nitzana Crossing used to be a place which was manned by the reserve battalions of the Israel Defense Force. Not anymore.

Alongside the security fence on the edge of the Sinai Peninsula now are the red berets and polished weaponry of the paratroopers brigade. They are among the most highly trained and experienced soldiers in the Israeli army. On one of the most sensitive stretches of ground in the world right now, Israel needs people who can tell the difference between a genuine threat, and a couple of people trying to climb over the fence. 

"We don't want guys down there who are going to panic," said Aviv Oreg, a former counter-terrorism director with the IDF. "It's a very delicate situation, so the units deployed along the border now are there for their judgment as much as for their fighting ability."

Beyond the border, stretching out in front of the paratroopers' sights, are the sands of the Sinai Desert. In the years since the Arab Spring, the Sinai has steadily filled with threats. The desert has become home to a collection of violent groups affiliated with al Qaeda, one of which was responsible for the execution this week of 25 Egyptian police officers near the border with Gaza.

Last week, militants also launched a rocket attack on the Israeli holiday resort of Eilat.

These extremist activities are a major concern for Israel, which has relied on the strong-arm of military leaders like former President Hosni Mubarak to suppress would-be Islamist militants in Egypt.

"The militants in Sinai will try to drag Israel into the conflict, so we need to contain their activities," said Oreg. "If a rocket falls on a hillside in Israel, and no-one is hurt, then we can bear that. But if a rocket falls on a hotel in Eilat, then Israel will have to retaliate. That is a situation we need to avoid."

Israel will try to do that by continuing to cooperate with Egypt's military in the way that it has done in the three decades since the countries made peace. It has never been a close relationship, not for nothing is it described as “the cold peace.” 

But with Egypt in such turmoil, the cooperation has to be even more carefully handled than it usually is. At the last meeting of his security cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded his ministers and their spokesmen that on no account must they talk publicly about Egypt. Any sign that Israel has taken sides in the Egyptian conflict could only backfire. 

The Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet, has created a new unit to focus solely on disrupting extremist operations in the Sinai Desert, and given their shared interests in the area, there will be advantages in exchanging information with their Egyptian counterparts. 

Under the terms of the 1979 peace accords, Egypt must keep Israel informed of its military operations in the Sinai Peninsula, and in the face of the extremist threat, coordination has become closer. 

A security official in Cairo told the Associated Press that an Israeli drone strike killed five Islamic militants three miles inside Egypt two weeks ago. If true, experts say it is unthinkable that Israel's military would have carried out such an operation without telling the Egyptians first.

"The military hotline is very busy, and it's working very well," said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo. "Establishing a functioning democracy in Egypt right now would be impossible. I don't like what they're doing on the streets, but it is only the military which can deliver law, order and stability."

Just 300 yards north of the border with Egypt lies the village of Kadesh Barnea. It is steeped in biblical history – during their flight from slavery in Egypt, it was the place from which the Israelites first glimpsed the Promised Land. 

Now it is home to some modern day pioneers – 50 Israeli settler families, all of them making a living from working the land. 

Anan Sion is in charge of the community's security response team. "I feel much safer since the army took over in Egypt," he said. "They're taking more and more care of security in Sinai. Two years ago it was a real no-man's land. I hope very much that the army stays in charge in Cairo, with a strong leader."