About ten hours before a warplane roared down the Red Sea, crossed into Sudanese airspace and let fly a missile at a sedan, killing both of the people inside, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad offered a piece of advice about secret military actions to audience of diplomats and journalists in a Jerusalem hotel.
“Never boast,” Gilad said. “Be humble. Be modest. Do it, what you have to do. Don’t talk.”
The topic was Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and what Israel might do military to impede them. As director general of political-military affairs for Israel’s defense ministry, Gilad may be the person in Israel in the best position to answer, but he demurred on the grounds that saying things in public tended to impede the ability to do them. So it is that when asked about the Stuxnet worm that wreaked havoc with Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility, or the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists on their way to the office, Israeli officials limit themselves to a knowing smile and a “no comment.”
And indeed the Israel Defense Force had nothing to say on Wednesday about the mysterious air strike just north of Port Sudan late Tuesday evening. But a senior military official privately confirmed the obvious. “It’s not our first time there,” the official told TIME, referring to a January 2009 airstrike that demolished an entire convoy near the Egyptian border, killing dozens. Both attacks took place on the preferred route for smuggling guns, missiles and mortars to the Gaza Strip and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs it. The route begins in Iran, a major sponsor of Hamas, runs by sea around the Arabian Peninsula to Port Sudan, then overland across the vast Sinai Desert. Somewhere along the way, according to a Western official speaking on condition of anonymity, an electronic device was attached to the shipment. Its signal guided the missile into the the vehicle as it moved north from the port Tuesday night. News reports quoted witnesses as hearing multiple explosions; secondary blasts would likely be the unidentified munition inside the car.
The Sinai has never been easily policed by Egyptian authorities,and has been even more wide-open since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. (When a hierarchy slackens, the periphery loosens the most.) But Gilad signaled that things are tightening up, saying the military government that succeeded Mubarak is working closely with Israel on Sinai.
“We have intensive dialogue with Egyptian authorities and they are doing their best to rise to the challenges,” he said. Indeed Gilad was downright ebullient about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, referring admiringly to its “sophisticated use of power” and singling out Field Marshal Mohamad Hussain Tantawi, a close adviser to Mubarak. Israel’s quite public worries about the course Egypt might take after Tahrir Square seemed a thing of the past, at least for now. “I must say I’m very much impressed by the stability of the Supreme Council,” Gilad said. “I think they embody the best of Egypt.”
Sudan may differ. To reach its territory, Israeli aircraft would have needed overflight permission from either Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Both border the Red Sea south of Israel, and neither is a fan of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Long experience with Egyptian meddling predisposes Khartoum to blame Cairo for a great deal, though on Wednesday its foreign minister was naming only Israel.
“This is absolutely an Israeli attack,” Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti told reporters. He found in the air strike evidence of a plot to keep Sudan on the State Department’s list of countries that support terror.
Back in Jerusalem, before any of this had happened, the Israeli defense official offered assurances that Egypt remained at the forefront of the fight against Iran. Never mind that a pair of Iranian warships were permitted to pass through the Suez in the days after Mubarak fell. The message was that his successors have asserted control.
“Always,” the general said, “I’ve found with them a deep understanding of the real nature of Iran.”
— with reporting by Aaron J. Klein