Is ISIL's threat to Israel real?

With its strategic importance to the United States and its uniqueness as a Jewish state among Muslim ones, the question of Israel’s security often arises when it comes to conflict in the Middle East. With the expansion of ISIL, this question comes up once again.

When examining areas of ISIL control, it becomes clear that the group fills the void left behind by state failure or collapse. This has been characteristic of Muslim fundamentalist groups since the uprisings that rippled across the Middle East since 2011. ISIL’s unique trans-border control leads us to question the possible affect the group could have on Israel.

In order to properly assess ISIL’s threat to Israel, it is helpful to understand Israel’s geographic location in the region. Israel borders Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in the northeast, while Egypt and the Gaza Strip border Israel to the south.

Assertions have been made that the northeast border should be the most concerning for Israel. Aside from the West Bank, Israel’s longest border is shared with Jordan. This makes the relationship between the two states of substantial importance. While right now, the states are considered to be in peace after the 1994 peace treaty, the would-be infiltration of ISIL into Jordan could pose a threat to Israel.

Also to Israel’s north, ISIL’s presence can be felt in Iraq and Syria. While Iraq does not directly border Israel, the presence of ISIL in Iraq is a threat nonetheless, since Iraq borders Jordan. In 2014, it was estimated that as many as 10 million people were under ISIL control in Iraq and Syria. This would make ISIL a substantial threat to Israel, especially considering that ISIL gained control of Daraa, which is located on the Jordan-Israel-Syria border.

However, there has been a substantial erosion of ISIL control in these areas, with the group losing approximately 10-20% of the populated area it once held in Syria.

Israel should be much more concerned about the threat from its southern borders. Like Jordan, Israel and Egypt have signed a peace treaty creating a state of cold-peace between the nations. However, Egypt has struggled to effectively govern the Sinai Peninsula, the desert area between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, which has led to a proliferation of jihadist activity in the area, including the radicalization of the local Bedouin tribes. Of primary concern in the Sinai Peninsula is the “Sinai Province of the Islamic State”, an ISIL affiliate.

In Gaza, there have been several groups that have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and while this leads to a challenge of power for Hamas, the group has allowed for operatives to assist ISIL in the Sinai Peninsula. The cooperation of the two has resulted in the smuggling of weapons, the treatment of ISIL fighters in Gaza hospitals and intelligence sharing about Egyptian targets.

While currently the threat of ISIL in the Sinai Peninsula remains focused on Egypt, the Hamas-ISIL cooperation could shift towards Israel. The cooperation between the entities and Sinai’s geographic proximity to Israel pose a significant threat to Israel. Most substantial, is the threat of terror attacks.

Peace between Egypt and Israel means that civilians can cross between the two states. This allows ISIL affiliates to do the same and creates a threat of terror attacks within Israel’s borders, in populous cities such as Eilat. The threat also applies in the other direction, with Israelis travelling through the Sinai to reach Egypt, creating the possibility for kidnappings and ambushes on the way.

While the erosion of ISIL power in Iraq and Syria decreases the threat to Israel from the northeast, it has exactly the opposite impact in the south. A weakening in one area requires compensation in another, which make it reasonable to assume that ISIL could turn its efforts towards Israel.

In order to prepare for the impending threat of ISIL, Israel must take a number of measures.

  1. Increase military and intelligence cooperation with Egyptian authorities and cooperate to overcome the threat of ISIL.

  2. Tighten security along the Israel-Egypt border to prevent ISIL affiliates from entering.

  3. Broaden intelligence gathering efforts on ISIL to gain a better understanding of ISIL’s strategy and tactics.

   The ever-changing power dynamics in the Middle East make it difficult to assert a claim regarding Israel’s long-term security in the region vis-à-vis ISIL. Taking precautions and steps for better preparedness can only benefit Israel. All is not quiet on the southern front.