The outcome of the latest terrorist attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border leaves the two nations with a confusing situation. Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip entered Egyptian territory at sundown from the smuggling tunnels run by Hamas and then proceeded to attack an Egyptian military post. They killed 16 Egyptian soldiers who were settling down to their Ramadan feast, stole vehicles which they then loaded with explosives, and headed to the Israeli border with the apparent goal of kidnapping and/or killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Fortunately, the Israel army reacted swiftly, blowing up one vehicle, killing several of the terrorists and forcing the others to flee into the Sinai. No Israelis were harmed.
The attack is an embarrassment in more than one way for the Egyptian government that is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is allied with Hamas, which along with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, condemned the incident. But the lax security in the Sinai since the fall of the Mubarak regime has led not only to Sinai becoming a lawless region where terrorists roam freely. Even more important, the attack, which is just the latest attempt by Gaza-based Palestinians to assault Israel via the Sinai, makes it clear the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza has made it a terrorist enclave that presents a danger to Egypt as well as Israel. Though Israel is the boogeyman of Egyptian popular culture and the focus of a relentless hate campaign in the media there, it may turn out that the Palestinians are the real threat. The question is whether the slaughter of their soldiers — a crime that cannot be blamed on Israel — willl motivate the Egyptian army and the government in Cairo to crack down on both Sinai and Hamas-run Gaza.
The Israeli government has been calling for Egypt to police Sinai more thoroughly. Their neighbors have said this would require the two countries to renegotiate the 1979 peace treaty that calls for Egypt to keep its main forces away from the border. But the problem is not really limited to the Sinai. The danger stems from the fact that Gaza has become a haven not just for every armed Palestinian terrorist group but also global jihadis who may not be willing to take orders from Hamas.
In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, Egypt largely dropped its enforcement of the blockade of Gaza, making it easier for terrorists as well as arms and material to enter the Hamas-run statelet. But the majority of Egyptians who support the Brotherhood must now reckon with the fact that having an Islamist terror state on their border presents a danger to them as well as to Israel. It may be asking a lot of a country where anti-Semitism is so deeply engrained in popular culture and where hatred of Israel is endemic to realize that keeping the border with the Jewish state quiet is in their interest. But as ordinary Egyptians as well as the new government begin to realize that what they have nurtured in Gaza is a danger akin to Afghanistan prior to 9/11, traditional Egyptian antipathy for the Palestinians could begin to rein in a reckless policy of antagonizing Israel.