Although Egyptian authorities arrested 49 members of a Hezbollah terrorist cell bent on attacking Israeli tourists and Egyptian institutions, Israeli intelligence experts believe more terrorists are still at large in Egypt.
“There are still squads out there that have not been detained, including 13 operatives the Egyptians are looking for in the central Sinai Peninsula,” said Reuven Ehrlich, director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center just north of Tel Aviv.
“My assumption is that when the detainees are questioned, they can get a lot of information from them,” he said. “The Egyptians know what they are doing.”
Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Hezbollah’s “objective was to threaten Egypt, and they are a direct threat to Egypt, which is the most powerful Arab country.”
“This is a big thing,” he said. “It’s very worrisome and troubling. … They are well organized and well established. They were in action for three or four years before they were discovered.”
The group had planned to launch three simultaneous terrorist attacks against Israeli tourists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, according to an Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram.
The paper based its report on the alleged confession of Hezbollah terror suspect Sami Shihab. It had earlier reported that the terrorists had acquired a house in Cairo and numerous villas in the Sinai to carry out their attacks. At midweek, at least 10 members of the terrorist cell were believed at large in the Sinai and were being hunted by Egyptian authorities.
A report Ehrlich posted on his group’s Web site said that in addition to targeting Israeli tourists, the Hezbollah terrorist cells smuggled weapons through Sudan, to Egypt and then through tunnels into the Gaza Strip for use by Hamas terrorists.
The 49 Hezbollah terrorists were arrested in November. But after news of the arrests surfaced late last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that Shihab was a Hezbollah operative who was involved in smuggling weapons and fighters into the Gaza Strip. He denied that Hezbollah was involved in any clandestine operations against Egypt.
But the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said the presence of the Hezbollah network in Egypt is “more proof of the military support Iran gives Hamas in the Gaza Strip either directly or through Hezbollah, which operates as a subcontractor to promote Iranian interests.”
There were also reports that the terrorists blamed to disrupt international shipping in the Suez Canal.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that since Israel ended its 22-day military offensive against Hamas in January, Hamas has been rearmed with “tons of explosives” that have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip. He said Hezbollah reportedly had set up shop in Egypt so its operatives could reassemble dismantled weapons shipped from Iran before smuggling them into Gaza.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Hezbollah’s “real threat is not to tourists or the Egyptian economy, it is to Egypt because this is part of an effort to overthrow the Egyptian government.”
“Egypt is very sensitive about its sovereignty and it does not accept any infringement of it,” he said. “That’s the reason it wanted back [from Israel] every grain of sand in the Sinai.
“Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government and it has been operating on Egyptian territory as if Egypt didn’t exist. Exactly what their motivations are and who gave the orders are all guesses. Was Iran involved? We don’t know.”
But Pardo said the research by him and his colleagues has convinced him that Iran is behind the whole thing.
“Every major decision by Hezbollah is taken with officials of the Iranian regime and its Revolutionary Guard,” he said. “They are comrades. It is not that Iran rules Hezbollah; they are partners and have the same goals. The debate here is whether Nasrallah’s admission was because he was on his own ego trip and he acted without consulting the Iranians.
“But the fact that the operation in Egypt was ordered by Iran is beyond doubt. And the fact that Hezbollah is an Iranian organization means Iran is taking on Egypt.”
Pardo said Iran has taken a go-slow approach in trying to spread Islam.
“They understand that if they move quickly like the Nazis, they will be defeated,” he said. “So they move slowly without having too much of a reaction – and they retreat if needed. If America would suddenly declare war on Iran, they would quickly apologize.
Otherwise, they will weather the storm. They are very calculated. The Iranians say the Persians will replace the Arabs because they are more spiritual.”
Asked how the Iranians would like the U.S. to react to them, Pardo said it would like the U.S. to “mind its own business, work only in North America and forget about Latin America, which it is now Islamizing. They would like the U.S. to become like Italy — a normal country with no manifest destiny that doesn’t provide help to Israel. It is saying, ‘We have no problem with you because we will gradually Islamize the world.’”
Steinberg said he believes the change in administrations in the United States and Israel has been the trigger for increased unrest among Arabs.
“There is a general sense that the Palestinians are quick to pick up on the hint that this is the time to resume violence – that more terrorist attacks will put pressure on Israel,” he said.
Steinberg noted that George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, is to meet with Israeli officials late this week.
“So the Palestinians are now saying that if Israel does not give them what they want, they will resume violence,” he said.
But Steinberg said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that the first thing on his agenda at the Mitchell meeting will be Iran.
Although Mitchell’s assignment is the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, Hoenlein pointed out that in a recent conference call with Mitchell, the former senator said that lately when he speaks with Arab leaders, “their first sentence is about Iran.”