What's Driving the Violence in Sinai

The latest shooting highlights militants' attempts to goad Israel into invading Egypt. But that's unlikely to happen.

Israeli soldiers take positions near the border fence between Israel and Egypt October 22, 2014.  (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Violence erupted on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula today as gunmen attacked an Israeli Defense Force patrol stationed near the border town of Mount Harif. Egyptian security forces blamed Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis (ABM), a prominent jihadist group active on Sinai, for the attack, which injured two IDF soldiers.

Sinai has served as the central front of Egypt's efforts to stem a long-running Islamist insurgency that has grown more violent since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's previous president, in 2013. Clashes between jihadist groups and Egyptian soldiers have killed hundreds in the past year, and ABM—whose name means "Champions of Jerusalem"—has staged terrorist attacks and assassination attempts from their base in north Sinai.

Amid the violence in Sinai, ties between Egypt and Israel have warmed. On Sunday, Israel agreed to supply Egypt with an annual 2.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas for the next seven years. Cairo, meanwhile, has assisted Israel by destroying tunnels linking Sinai with Gaza, a Palestinian territory ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.

According to Daniel Nisman, president of Levantine Group, a think tank devoted to Middle East affairs, groups like ABM seek to destabilize the Israeli-Egyptian partnership.

"The goal is to provoke an Israeli incursion into Egyptian territory, which would then put Cairo in hot water," he said in a phone interview.

But Nisman added that Israel's options for a response are limited.

"Since intervening in Egypt would backfire, all Israel can do is continue cooperating with the Egyptian government."

ABM, which has ties to al Qaeda's Egyptian-born leader Ayman al-Zawahri, has shown the ability to strike territories beyond its base in Sinai. Nisman, however, does not believe that the group will overthrow the Egyptian government in Cairo.

"In guerrilla warfare, you need to have the support of a local population," he said. "But ABM lacks much support outside of Sinai."