Islamic State Has Avoided Direct Clash With Israel Despite Having Forces Close to Two of Israel’s Borders

Moshe Ya'alon
Moshe Ya'alon / AP

JERUSALEM—Although the Islamic State has forces close to two of Israel’s borders, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday, it has chosen thus far to avoid a direct clash with Israel.

"Daesh (another name for the Islamic State) hasn’t opened a front against us because they would simply get hurt," he said in an interview on Israel Radio.

One of the Islamic State’s most formidable affiliates exists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula abutting southern Israel. Before pledging allegiance last year to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Egyptian Jihadi group had operated under the name of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Since joining the Islamic State, its aggressiveness has increased and its tactics have become more sophisticated. It has also wielded advanced arms, including Russian-made anti-tank weapons.

In its previous incarnation, the Sinai group had staged incursions into the Israeli Negev and fired rockets periodically at the southern resort of Eilat. Since becoming part of the Islamic State it has not staged incursions and rocket attacks have been few. The group’s efforts have been directed almost entirely to battles with Egyptian security forces, which have been unable to suppress them.

The Sinai Jihadists have recently threatened to stage a major incursion into Israel and to renew rocketing but have thus far refrained from doing so. Israel has reportedly been providing intelligence to the Egyptian army battling the Jihadists in Sinai but Israeli forces have not crossed the border to engage the Jihadists directly.

However, Israel is closely monitoring their activity. This became evident after a Russian airliner with 224 passengers went down over Sinai two weeks ago after taking off from the resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. The crash was first believed due to a technical malfunction. According to foreign intelligence sources, it was Israel which first indicated that the plane had been downed by a bomb smuggled aboard, this on the basis of radio intercepts.

The other border that would appear to invite the Islamic State’s attention is at the other end of Israel – the Golan Heights. Although the Islamic State is concentrated in northern and eastern Syria and in Iraq, small IS contingents engaged in the Syrian civil war are reportedly in southern Syria as well, not far from the Golan border. But there has been no reported attempt by them to approach it. In his radio interview, Defense Minister Ya’alon said that Israel has succeeded in deterring any such move.

The forces across the Golan border would be part the core Islamic State army under the direct command of al-Baghdadi. Referring to the Islamic Statein Syria, Ya’alon said, "We are following its presence there." Deterred or not, the Islamic State is still a threat.

In a video released last month directed at Israel, the narrator, speaking in Hebrew, warned Israel that the war with it has not yet begun. "Everything you have experienced so far has been child’s play. We promise you that soon not one Jew will be left alive in Jerusalem or across Israel and we will continue until we eradicate this disease from the world."

An attempt by Iran to establish its own forward operating base close to the Golan was foiled in January when Israeli aircraft, evidently operating on accurate intelligence, attacked two vehicles reconnoitering the border area on the Syrian side. Killed in one vehicle was an Iranian general and five other Iranian military personnel. Killed in the other vehicle were six members of Hezbollah, Iran’s principal proxy in the area.

"Over the past year we’ve worked to prevent Iran opening a front on the Golan," said Yaalon.

The minister noted that the Islamic State has gained some support among Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel itself, but not in meaningful numbers. A small number of Israeli Arabs have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State ranks. Gaza Strip also has Islamic State followers, he noted, but the Hamas authorities there are seeking to suppress them. "That’s an interesting phenomenon," said Yaalon.