Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.
As al-Qaeda-affiliated radical forces pour into areas bordering Israel’s north and south, the Israeli defense establishment is adjusting itself to prepare for a new, post “Arab spring” reality.
According to Israeli security assessments, thousands of radical jihadis have moved into Syria from abroad, and joined radicalized local fighters to create the largest pro-al-Qaeda presence in the region.
The concern now is that Syria will act a springboard for jihad [holy war in the service of Islam] and that terrorists will move from Syria to nearby states — Lebanon, Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt — to create zones of extremism and violence.
This trend has already begun to take shape in Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, where, since the spring months, thousands of people have been murdered in bombings and shootings in resurgent al-Qaeda attacks, mainly on Shi’ite targets.
The newly empowered Iraqi al-Qaeda elements are tied to Syria’s largest al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the Al Nusra Front.
If or when the regime of Bashar Assad crumbles and these rebels seize Damascus, Israel and the US would immediately have to answer the question of how to secure Syria’s enormous chemical weapons arsenal. Allowing those and other weapons to fall into radical hands is unthinkable.
Meanwhile, to Israel’s south, thousands of jihadi fighters have turned the Sinai Peninsula into a terrorist base. The Egyptian military, although occupied with efforts to stabilize Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, has internalized the scope of the new threat in Sinai, and is busy preparing a large counter-terrorism offensive to rein in the radicals. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Egypt will likely launch the operation in the near future, and that it will proceed for a long period of time.
Despite increased Egyptian counter-terrorism efforts, senior Israel Defense Force [IDF] officials have stated that they expect the terrorists in Sinai sooner or later to attack Israel again.
These attacks could take two forms. First, they could fire rockets at Israeli population centers, such as the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, which relies heavily on tourism, and is located a stone’s throw from the Sinai Peninsula.
Eilat has been already been targeted several times in recent years by Sinai terrorists firing rockets; the IDF recently mobilized an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery near the city to protect it from future rocket threats.
The second type of threat involves a ground raid by cells of terrorists armed with bombs, shoulder-held rockets, and automatic weapons, and with a view to penetrating the Israeli frontier and striking either a high-value target or a civilian population center inside the country.
Due to the increase in regional jihadi activity, as time goes by the chance of such incidents increases.
The IDF, not resting on its laurels, has put into action a large-scale plan to prepare Israel’s northern and southern borders for the new threats they face.
On both borders, fences with sophisticated electronic sensors have been erected. Infantry brigades are being mobilized for border patrols in growing numbers. And commanders have increased the number of Artillery Corps and Armored Corps units.
As a direct response to the rising threat, the IDF held its largest Paratroopers Brigade exercise this week, in which, to practice mobilizing large forces behind enemy lines at a moment’s notice, a thousand soldiers parachuted at night from Hercules transport planes to the ground. After landing, the paratroopers practiced how to form quickly into battalions, link up at staging grounds and launch assaults on enemy targets.
A senior IDF source said the exercise was taking place because “the enemies around us are gathering near our borders.” He described the ability to parachute a thousand paratroopers behind enemy lines as a “huge advantage.”
Col. Eliezer Toledano, Commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, said, “Many eyes are watching us in this drill: The eyes of the Israeli people, who must know that when Israel decides to, it can send 1,000 combat soldiers deep into enemy territory at a moment’s notice; the eyes of IDF senior command, who knows it needs only mark the spot, and we’ll already be there; and the eyes of our enemies, who will know that any moment, more than 1,000 paratroopers keen for battle will spit fire behind their lines.”