By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
JERUSALEM — Well before the latest threat from Islamic State, Israel’s military had stepped up intelligence and preparedness efforts with the militant group in mind.
In particular, Israeli forces are keeping an eye on Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, possibly the organization’s most effective branch in the region, observers say. Sooner or later, Israel believes, Islamic State could attempt some kind of strike on the country.
Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivered a lengthy address Saturday in which he directly threatened Israel — and seemed to be answering critics in Islamist militant circles who have complained that the group, based in Syria and Iraq, has not taken up the Palestinian cause.
“No, O Jews, we did not forget Palestine for one moment,” Baghdadi said in his speech, monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Soon, soon you will hear the crawl of the mujahedeen, and their vanguards will surround you on a day you believe is far but that we see is close.”
“Palestine will be your graveyard,” he said.
Some Islamist extremists who are critics of Islamic State have accused the group of deliberately ignoring Israel, focusing instead on weak governments and instability in places such as Iraq and Syria. Saturday’s remarks were not the first time the group has threatened Israel, but it has generally focused its attention on other enemies.
In his address Saturday, Baghdadi also denounced the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, as well as Kurds and Shiite Muslims.
Another warning to Israel came Sunday from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese-based Shiite organization Hezbollah, who threatened to retaliate for the killing of key operative Samir Quntar the week before in an airstrike in Syria believed to have been carried out by Israel’s military.
In remarks Sunday, Israel’s army chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkott, referred to threats from both groups, saying it doesn’t take broad knowledge of security issues to “understand the sensitivity of these times.”
In recent weeks, the Israel Defense Forces stepped up training of its southern command units and held a surprise drill on its border with the Gaza Strip. Aside from the standing threat from Hamas and other militants in Gaza, the exercise included scenarios for more complex and far-flung threats.
According to Israeli media, Israel’s military trained last month for the possibility of an abduction of its soldiers by Islamic State forces. The exercise simulated a scenario in which Islamic State fighters launched a missile attack on an Israeli tank along the border with Sinai, abducted several soldiers and pushed into Israel’s Negev desert.
The army medical corps has also been holding special drills, practicing setting up a field hospital in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost resort city at the tip of the Red Sea and the Sinai peninsula, as might be required in the case of a massive terrorist attack on the city.
(Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.)
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV