Thursday, August 18, Israel had its first taste of a sophisticated al Qaeda-style coordinated terrorist operation modeled on the atrocities common in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israeli intelligence services, army (IDF) and Police were taken by surprise by the scale and slick organization of the multiple assaults that were staged near Eilat on the highway running south parallel to the Egyptian border by gunmen of the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees and Palestinian organizations linked to al Qaeda.
Seven Israelis were killed, including two women, and about 40 injured in shooting attacks on two buses and other vehicles and by the roadside bombing of a military vehicle. UN personnel were quickly evacuated from the Gaza Strip and Egypt locked the Gaza-Sinai crossing as Israel prepared to mete out punishment.
DEBKAfile's military sources estimate that Lebanese Shiite Hizballah experts may have aided the terrorists in setting up the complex operation.
Towards evening, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that Israel's response would be "commensurate with the breach of its sovereignty." Defense Minister Ehud Barak said "The source of the terror is Gaza." He did not specify whether he knew the gunmen had in fact reached the scene of the attack from Gaza or elsewhere.
A Hamas spokesman threatened Israel with a sharp reprisal if Gaza were attacked. Terrorist facilities of Hamas and other organizations have reportedly been evacuated and Qassam, Grad and mortar batteries deployed ready for launching.
The IDF estimates that the attackers numbering at least 20 came from the Gaza Strip and took up positions near the Sinai border with Israel to wait for the signal to go ahead.
The Defense Minister, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Ganz, and Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi are widely blamed for falling down on precautions for protecting the South although they knew in advance that the Egyptian army was about to embark on a large-scale counter-terror operations in Sinai. Defense ministry sources admitted that they had received a heads-up on a terror attack. It was up to all three to have taken into account that Egypt's Sinai Operation Eagle would be exploited by Palestinian or Al Qaeda terrorists to let loose against Israel. Egypt may suspend its campaign if Israel strikes back against Gaza.
US and Israeli intelligence officials reported Wednesday night, August 17, they were helping the Egyptian Sinai operation by keeping its commander abreast of Palestinian and Al Qaida movements in Sinai.
However, 12 hours later, America which maintains a network of surveillance teams and observation posts across Sinai and Israel intelligence were both shown to be at a loss for real time information on terrorist activities in the peninsula.
A multiple assault by 20 gunmen using automatic guns, RPGs, mortars and roadside bombers could not have been an off-the-cuff operation. It entailed long planning. Its participants had to receive detailed instructions and be brought to the scenes of attack to familiarize themselves with the arena.
Their spies must have spent weeks observing military and civilian vehicular traffic on the highway and carefully picked the targets.
Yet none of these activities aroused suspicion. The big question is how did the gunmen managed to drive down one of the main routes to Eilat undetected. Did they cross the border from Sinai by car without arousing the notice of the Israeli military or border police? Or did their confederates meet them with vehicles for their use on the Israeli side?
The attack itself was meticulously designed to go forward in stages.
First, a three-man cell shot up an Egged bus bringing soldiers to Eilat on leave.
After that, several anti-tank missiles, possibly RPGs, set a second bus on fire and hit two civilian cars - one killing four passengers and the second killing a woman.
An Israeli unit trying to reach the scene of attack then ran over roadside bombs planted in advance. The explosion killed or injured its passengers. A special police unit had meanwhile located the three-man team which attacked the first bus and killed them all in a firefight. Two of their bodies were found to be rigged with explosions. Four more were killed after being hunted down. Egyptian police in Sinai also shot two terrorists.
The IDF has closed all the roads to the South to traffic for more sweeps to locate missing terrorists and explosives.
Its inhabitants as far south as Eilat, Israel's southernmost town and port, are in a high state of suspense for the IDF counter-terror operation to come.