Surface-to-Air Missile Attack in Sinai Spells Trouble For Israeli Airliners

Islamists down Egyptian military helicopter with sophisticated weapon

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Mohamed Rashed / Almasry Alyoum / EPA

Relatives and army soldiers carry the coffin of Egyptian pilot Ahmed Abul Atta, who was killed in an army helicopter crash in Sinai Peninsula a day earlier, during the funeral procession in Port Said, Egypt, on Jan. 26, 2014.

The downing of an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai region of the country by Islamist militants apparently using, for the first time, a surface-to-air missile represents a significant intensification of the violence there — and has implications beyond the troubled Sinai.

If the militants have more surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) they could endanger commercial airliners landing and taking off many times a day at Eilat, the Israeli resort city that sits on the tiny sliver of the Red Sea coast inside Israel. The flight approach to the Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border. Ground-to-ground missiles are sometimes fired from the Sinai toward Eilat, including a couple of Grad rockets seven days ago.

The helicopter attack in Sinai is apparently shown in a video released by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem, a group aligned with al-Qaeda.

So can anything be done to make the civilian airline traffic at Eilat safe? It’s a difficult challenge. Israeli security and aviation authorities actually closed the airport briefly last August. Flight paths have also been altered, to avoid points of greatest vulnerability. In the longer term, a new airport is planned, further inland, but it will not be completed for months at the earliest. The other fix would be for Egypt to secure the Sinai itself.

Will that happen soon?

There’s scant sign of it. Sinai is large and has always been restive, and governed by military governors. The Bedouin tribes that make up the population have long complained of being neglected, and in recent years the arrival of jihadi philosophies and militants have radicalized members of some tribes, especially in the north. The situation has grown far more volatile since the July 3 overthrow of the elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the launch of a military campaign that aims to subdue the militants — but which also presents them with more targets.