JERUSALEM — The Israeli military today shot down a rocket launched from neighboring Egypt toward a popular Red Sea resort, and an al-Qaida-linked militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, fueling concerns that jihadist groups are trying to disrupt the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
It was the first time that Israel has deployed its “Iron Dome” rocket defense system in Eilat, a normally placid resort near Egypt’s Sinai peninsula that is popular with Israeli and European tourists.
The incident came after days of heightened tension along the Egypt-Israel border fueled by an Egyptian crackdown on militant groups. The area has experienced increased militant activity since the ouster of long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said the Iron Dome system shot down a Grad-style Katyusha rocket fired from Egypt after midnight. There were no injuries.
Yaalon said it was “no coincidence” that Iron Dome had been deployed near Eilat.
“In general in Sinai now, as we have seen for a long time, there is radical Islamic terror there that mainly attacks the Egyptian military and police but is also trying to attack us,” he told reporters during a stop in northern Israel.
Last Thursday, Israel briefly closed Eilat’s airport in response to unspecified security warnings. The following day, five men believed to be Islamic militants were killed in the Sinai, and a rocket launcher there was reportedly destroyed, according to Egyptian officials. Egyptian security officials attributed Friday’s strike to a drone fired from the Israeli side of the border, but Israel has remained silent about the attack.
Two militant websites posted a statement by an al-Qaida-linked group claiming responsibility for today's attack. The Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem has claimed to carry out similar attacks in the past, and the statement included details about the strike, including the type of rocket and the time it was fired.
Another group, Ansar Jerusalem, earlier sent an email claiming it had fired the rocket. But the group’s statement did not appear on the militant websites, which are often used by al-Qaida and other extremists to publish information.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, and while relations have never been warm, the agreement has been a cornerstone of regional security for the past three decades.
But Israeli concerns have been rising since Mubarak was toppled. While security cooperation with Egypt’s military remains strong, al-Qaida-linked groups and other militants have exploited a power vacuum and stepped up their activities. These have heightened since the army toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last month.
Egyptian security officials say that they have stepped up their campaign against Jihadi groups in recent weeks.
The biggest strike since the fall of Morsi took place on Saturday when military helicopters fired three missiles targeting a meeting by suspected militants, killing 12 in the desert town of Sheikh Zuweyid. Security forces have a long list of wanted militants, who are concentrated along the border area with Gaza and Israel and in the central Sinai mountains.
Authorities have accused the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s movement, of trying to escalate tension in Sinai by supporting extremist groups in order to put pressure on the military-backed government. They also say that Morsi quietly negotiated with the extremists while he was in power, bringing some short-lived quiet to the Sinai but also allowing hard-line groups to gain strength and recruit new followers.
For more than a month after the military overthrow of Morsi, attacks on security forces and the military became a daily routine, with more than 20 security forces and 12 civilians killed. The military declared its operations in Sinai a “war against terrorism.”
Under the peace treaty, Egypt must coordinate any large-scale military operations in the northern Sinai with Israel. Officials say Israel has repeatedly accepted Egyptian requests to move equipment and troops into the area.
“We of course fully respect the Egyptian sovereignty and are following the operations of the Egyptian army and security forces that are acting in order to cleanse the terror nests there,” said Yaalon, the Israeli defense chief.
Israeli security officials say the Eilat rocket attack was an attempt by militants to disrupt this cooperation and strain ties with Egypt.
Most Iron Dome batteries have been deployed along Israel’s border with Gaza, which has been a staging ground for rocket attacks for years. The system intercepted hundreds of rockets during a week of fighting last November. Other batteries have been placed on Israel’s border with Lebanon.
Security officials say the system was stationed near Eilat roughly three weeks ago in response to heightened security concerns.