With the threat of anti-aircraft missile attacks from Egypt-based terrorists increasing, Israeli security precautions are being stepped up to unprecedented levels.
High-tech electronics, hundreds of human eyes on the ground, defensive weaponry and tighter coordination with Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula are all part of “Operation Hourglass” — the Israeli response to an influx of weaponry and Islamist guerrillas into the sandy tracts across the border.
Israel has invested heavily in security around Eilat since the fall of U.S.-backed Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Earlier this year it completed a 160-mile barrier with Egypt, stretching from Eilat’s outskirts to the Gaza Strip.
Officials have also shown Reuters a range of other measures being taken to defend against jihadists in Sinai — including an innovative Israeli-designed missile deflector aboard planes.
Israel believes disorder in protest-riven Egypt, coupled with arms smuggled in from Libya, has increased the threat to Eilat. Security action, however, is being kept discreet to avoid scaring off tourists.
Lior Ben-Simon, Eilat police spokesman, declined to discuss threat scenarios other than to say that an aviation disaster “is something we and all other relevant agencies have prepared for.”
The Israelis do not want to embarrass Egypt by publicly demanding tougher safeguards in Taba, the Sinai town closest to Eilat and the likely launching ground for the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADs. Their ranges rarely exceed 2.5 miles.
“The risk to our planes is being taken into account but with much necessary discretion, given the importance of preserving our peace with Egypt,” said Asaf Agmon, a retired Israeli air force brigadier-general who runs the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, a think-tank near Tel Aviv.
Since 2011, Agmon said, Israel has frequently rerouted planes so that they land in Eilat from the north, rather than the standard southern approach skirting the Egyptian frontier.
When the latter path is taken, planes bank sooner and more steeply over the Red Sea gulf to reduce their exposure to Taba.
In emergencies or rare low-visibility weather, Israel can redirect Eilat-bound aviation to Ovda, a semi-military airport 38 miles inland. It also plans to open a new and bigger airport in Timna, 11 miles to the north, by 2017.
C-Music, a bathtub-sized undercarriage pod designed by Elbit Systems, “blinds” incoming missiles’ heat-seeking warheads with a laser. As of last month, C-Music was being fitted on select jets from national carriers El Al, Arkia and Israir, with the Israeli government footing the $1.5 million unit cost, a security official said.
C-Music can be rotated among aircraft “in less than an hour, with the turn of a few screws,” the official said. That would allow Israel to decide at short notice whether to protect Eilat-bound flights, depending on the level of danger seen from Sinai.
“Yes, Eilat is a high priority, but there are other high-priority destinations,” the official said. “Much of the preventive work is being done by the forces on the ground.”
That referred to the hundreds of Israeli army lookouts, some in camouflaged ambush positions and others perched before surveillance screens in hi-tech bunkers, who strain to spot any unusual presence just over the border in Egypt whenever aircraft approach Eilat. Liaison officers free up telephone hotlines that might be needed for urgent calls to their Egyptian counterparts.
The Israelis assume MANPADs would be fired by two- or three-man crews, a presence hard to hide, though the towering and deeply fissured red buttes around Taba might provide some cover.
To overcome that, troops closely patrol the yard-high razor-wire border fence, guided by cameras that peer far into Egyptian territory with thermal imaging to spot body heat at night. Eilat is rowelled with 210-foot hilltop radar masts that help map out the frontier and movements there.