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When Israeli troops arrived, militants detonated explosives buried beside the road and returned Israeli fire for hours from two sites a mile or two apart. The attackers were so persistent, or so well trained, that one of the Israelis, an officer in the police antiterrorism task force, was killed after dark. The Israeli Defense Minister's roadside press conference was abruptly adjourned when fire erupted again.
"I mean, the operation was still on when they assassinated our people," says a spokesman for the PRC who goes by the name Abu Mujahed. An amiable man in his 30s, he wears smartly pressed slacks and an open shirt as he takes questions on a grassy yard in Khan Younis, the next town east from Rafah. "The way they controlled and managed to fight for hours, it shows that whoever's behind it has a very strong organization structure. It's like they have a military background and experience in how to do this."
PRC militants, he says, undergo "normal basic military training small arms, nothing fancy." Recruits specialize either in small arms or the swift firing of mortars and rockets into Israel. "You have to understand, we've only worked against the Israelis on the Gaza front," says Abu Mujahed. "Up to now, the decision is, you only can operate within your geographical border. This has to do with our strategic thinking. It has to do with our relationship with others Egypt and the other factions."
The question of Egypt looms over all. Within a day of the attack, the question of who carried it out was overtaken by the diplomatic crisis it sparked between Egypt and Israel. Egypt complained that several at least three, perhaps five of its forces were killed by Israeli troops pursuing the attackers into Egyptian territory.
The Cairo government, controlled by armed forces since Mubarak's overthrow, values the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but the broad Egyptian public has little love for the Jewish state. That reality sparked the diplomatic crisis and raises at least the possibility that the attackers included Egyptian nationals: either Bedouin tribesmen who call the Sinai home and have lately grown more Islamist or perhaps even rogue military or ex-military Egyptians. An Israeli motorist who narrowly avoided death said the man he saw open fire appeared to be dressed as an Egyptian soldier.
Abu Mujahed makes no such suggestion yet acknowledges that "in general, sure, not only the Sinai people but all Egyptians are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But especially in the Sinai, because they have suffered under the occupation. They know what we are going through." But he adds, "I can never speculate. This is a very sensitive thing."
That it is. Israeli security officials have been given warnings to tread lightly on Egyptian feelings. Cairo is in flux, and every group in the area fears alienating the country, whose cooperation is crucial. In the judgment of Israeli intelligence officials, that explains why the PRC denies its own operation: to avoid enraging Cairo by admitting it carried out a terrorist attack from its territory.
Not that Hamas would be pleased either. Asked if a militant group in Gaza would give its government advance notice of an attack, Abu Mujahed nearly chokes on a grape. "Absolutely not," he says, laughing. "You have to understand, the government in Gaza, they do not wish to see another war, and they will prevent giving Israel an excuse for one at any price. They will allow retaliation but not initiating."
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem