Helicopter brought down
Helicopter brought downScreenshot

Five Egyptian soldiers were killed when a military helicopter crashed to the ground in the northern Sinai peninsula, near Gaza, on Saturday. While the military said that the soldiers were killed in a helicopter “accident” as they pursued terrorists, the Al Qaeda-inspired Ansar Beit al Maqdis group said its fighters brought down the helicopter with a missile – and have posted a video corroborating the claim.

The video showed a terrorist, whose face was blurred, firing a rocket at the helicopter. While the moment of the missile's explosion is not shown and may have been edited out, the helicopter can then be seen plummeting down in flames.

The event provides graphic corroboration to the warning sounded recently by Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett, regarding the danger of pulling out of Judea and Samaria. Bennett demonstrated on a map what the borders would look like if Judea and Samaria were given to the Palestinian Authority (PA), showing that the region provides access for missiles to fall on the center of Israel, especially the Tel Aviv area. 

"Imagine if just one missile per day fell on Herzliya Pituah, what that would do to Israel's economy. If even one plane which was supposed to land at Ben Gurion Airport crashes (due to terrorism) per year, it would crush the Israeli economy," he elaborated. 

A single SA-7 missile fired from Samaria, which is adjacent to Ben Gurion airport, could, of course, easily bring down a passenger jet.

The use of a portable surface-to-air missile – known as a "man-portable air defence system," or 'manpad' – marks a serious escalation in the challenge facing the Egyptian military in the ongoing fight against islamist terrorists in Sinai. Egyptian forces have relied heavily on US Apache gunships and various Russian helicopters in their battle with the terrorists.

Well-placed sources in Cairo are quoted in the New York Times acknowledging that the helicopter was brought down by a Russian Strela-2 missile, known as SA-7 by NATO. Intelligence officials estimate that approximately 1,000 of the missiles are missing from the Libyan army’s arsenal, and many of them found their way into the hands of terrorists in Gaza and the Sinai.

In October 2012, the IDF said that a Strela-2 had been fired at one of its helicopters over Gaza, blaming Hamas. Unidentified terrorists reportedly fired the missile, one of many that have been smuggled into Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

Commercial aircraft already have been warned to steer clear of the Gaza region.

The Strela-2 surface-to-air missile system is an ideal weapon for insurgents – light, portable and easy for one man to fire. It homes in on the heat generated by an aircraft's engines and has a high explosive warhead and passive infrared homing guidance. It can hit aircraft flying as fast as 1,800 kmh (1,118 miles an hour) and at altitudes up to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet).

Although the 2012 attempted missile strike was the first report of an anti-aircraft missile aimed at the Israeli Air Force from Gaza, Sinai terrorists fired the same type of missile a year earlier in the deadly attack on Israelis on Highway 12, adjacent to the Egyptian-Sinai border. Six people were killed.

The biggest fear around the spread of such ultra-portable missiles is the threat they pose to airliners, particularly when landing or taking off. In 2003, a Strela was fired at an Israeli passenger aircraft in Kenya, but missed.

One day last August, the IDF ordered the immediate shutdown of the airport at Eilat to all arriving and departing flights, following an unspecified security assessment. The assessment was linked to terrorist activity in the Sinai desert, which borders on the southern port city, and where the Egyptian military had begun conducting a large scale offensive against terror cells that operate in Sinai.

In April of 2013, it was reported that Israeli planes taking off from Eilat would be due to the threat of Manpads. The initial thought was to intermittently close down the Eilat airport, but the decision eventually reached was to arm planes taking off from the airport with anti-missile systems.

Dutch charter airline Transavia cancelled its flights to the south Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in October because of the threat of such attacks.

Mark Langfan contributed to this report