A militant attack at a security checkpoint between Egypt and Israel left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead on Sunday, tightening tensions between the Islamist government of Egypt, Hamas, and Israel. Thirty-five unidentified gunmen entered Egypt from the Gaza Strip, commandeered two military vehicles, and crashed them into the border station. An Israeli helicopter destroyed one vehicle, and the other exploded when it crashed into the checkpoint.
Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt helped enforce the blockade on Gaza, but since the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, relations have warmed between the Palestinian Authority and the Egyptian government. By blaming Hamas militants for the attack, Egypt is shifting its alliances with the Palestinians. Egypt faces increased pressure from Israel to control the region.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday up to eight militants were killed in the attack, and expressed hope that the event would serve as a "wake-up call" for the Egyptian military.
Over the past few years, lawlessness in the sparsely populated Sinai region has been on the rise. In April, Egypt recently ended a Mubarak-era natural gas deal that used to supply 40% of Israel’s gas, and even then gas flow was interrupted 14 times due to militant attacks. Sinai is a popular location for Red Sea tourism, but security persists to be an issue. The smuggling network in Sinai transports everything from illicit drugs and arms, to people seeking better lives in Israel.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but politicians are quick to point fingers. The Muslim Brotherhood announced on its website that the deadly attack was an attempt to undermine the Egyptian revolution:
The Brotherhood said on Monday, "This crime can be attributed to the Mossad, which has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.
"[It] also draws our attention to the fact that our forces in Sinai are not enough to protect it and our borders, which makes it imperative to review clauses in the signed agreement between us and the Zionist entity."
Hamas, the governing Palestinian party in Gaza, claims no responsibility for the attack, and it probably isn’t responsible, either. Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and has ties with the Morsi administration. The majority of Palestinians in Gaza blame Hamas for not doing enough to secure the border. As a result of Sunday’s events, both the international border and the underground smuggling tunnels are now closed.
Many Egyptians agree with the Brotherhood’s stance that Mossad was behind the attack. Israel would benefit the most from this confrontation by proving that the border between Egypt and Israel is not secure, thereby increasing militarization in the Sinai and restricting flow into the Gaza Strip. If Egyptian allegations that the gunmen came from Gaza turn out to be true, it would strain the relationship between the two groups.
President Morsi has called for three days of mourning for the 16 dead Egyptian soldiers.