The tentacles of Islamic State (IS), already coiled around large areas of northern Iraq and Syria, are now reaching out as far as northern Sinai. Egypt's most active militant group is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and whether or not it is formally allied with IS and its leader, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims – contradictory reports about that have recently appeared in the press – it is certainly closely aligned to IS, whose objectives it backs, and whose methods it copies. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which attempted to kill the interior minister in Cairo in 2013 in a car bomb attack, has issued videos of the beheading of captives. It claimed responsibility for the bomb attack in Sinai in September, when at least 11 policemen were killed in a convoy travelling through village of Wefaq, near the Gaza border.
Based on intercepted phone calls and text messages, Egyptian security officials recently claimed to have uncovered requests for aid from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to IS. According to this intelligence, the Sinai-based terror group requested the IS senior leadership to send trained members to Sinai to help carry out terrorist attacks.
On Friday, October 24, two attacks in the Sinai peninsula killed 33 Egyptian security personnel. In the first, in the al-Kharouba area northwest of al-Arish, near the Gaza Strip, 30 people were killed and more than 25 wounded. Among them were several senior officers from Egypt’s Second Field Army based in Ismailia. One Sinai-based official said a rocket-propelled grenade was used to target two armored vehicles loaded with ammunition and heavy weapons, at a checkpoint near an army installation. Later, gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint in al-Arish, killing three members of the security forces.
Together the two attacks produced the biggest loss of life in decades for Egypt's army, which has been carrying out an offensive against jihadists in northern Sinai. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of national mourning, during which state television displayed black ribbons on screen. Following a meeting of the National Defence Council, he also imposed a three-month state of emergency in the north and center of the Sinai peninsula where the violence took place, and closed Egypt's Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip.
In short, Egypt now acknowledges that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has become one of the region's main exporters of terrorism, and is mounting a major offensive aimed at overcoming the threat and re-establishing effective control. Its aim is to establish a security buffer zone along its shared border with Gaza to prevent terrorists from using smuggling tunnels to launch attacks on Egyptian soldiers and civilians. The Egyptian army's security crackdown includes imposing a curfew on the region, closing the Rafah crossing into Gaza, demolishing hundreds of houses along the border with the Gaza Strip and transferring thousands of people to new locations. In other words – words familiar from their frequent use in castigating Israel – the Egyptians are tightening their blockade on Gaza and collectively punishing not only Hamas, but the Palestinians living there.
But, as Middle East journalist Khaled Abu Toamen wryly observes, though all this is happening before the eyes of the international community and media, the UN Security Council has not been asked to hold an emergency meeting to condemn what some Egyptian human rights activists describe as the "transfer" and "displacement" of hundreds of families in Sinai.
“Needless to say,” writes Abu Toamen, “the international community will continue to ignore Egypt's bulldozing hundreds of houses and the forcible eviction of hundreds of people in Sinai. Egypt's war does not seem to worry the international community and human rights organizations, at least not as much as Israel's operation to stop rockets and missiles from being fired into it from the Gaza Strip.”
He believes that the Egyptians, who once thought that the tunnels along their shared border with Gaza were being used only to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip, now think they are also being used to smuggle weapons and terrorists out. Accordingly they have sealed off their border with Gaza, insulating themselves from Hamas.
Meanwhile, following the firing of a rocket from Gaza into southern Israel on November 2 – the second since the end of Operation Protective Edge on August 26 – Israel has also closed the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings to Gaza “until the security situation allows their reopening”, according to an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson, who added that the closure was not meant as a punitive measure, but to protect people working at or passing through the crossings. Emergency humanitarian goods would continue to be allowed through.
Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouk declared that the Israeli closure of the crossings violates the cease-fire agreement which ended Operation Protective Edge, and called the decision “a childish and irresponsible act. This is collective punishment that is being imposed on the Gaza Strip.” But Hamas leaders like the Egyptian actions even less. On November 2 they appealed to the Egyptian authorities to reopen the Rafah border crossing, warning that the continued blockade on the Gaza Strip was in violation of the Egyptian-engineered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. Eyad al-Bazam, spokesman for Hamas’s Interior Ministry, pointed out that the closure of the Rafah terminal was preventing Palestinians with humanitarian cases from leaving the Gaza Strip.
However, Egypt is convinced that the two-pronged attack on October 24 that killed 33 soldiers was the work of Palestinian militants based in Gaza. Egypt’s Major General Sameeh Beshadi told the Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, that there was “no doubt that Palestinian elements had taken part in the attacks." According to Beshadi, the militants, who infiltrated Sinai via tunnels linking the peninsula to the Gaza Strip, prepared the booby-trapped vehicle used to attack the army checkpoint near El Arish. The use of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, he asserted, was proof that this attack, like all the large-scale attacks in the area in recent years "involved well-trained Palestinian elements."
Just at the moment Hamas needs Egypt much more than Egypt needs Hamas. Hamas’s ability to emerge with any credit from its latest conflict with Israel is dependent on the outcome of the indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks on the Gaza truce, being brokered by Egypt in Cairo. It must therefore feel very uncomfortable with the result of the recent terrorist outrage in Sinai – namely, Egypt’s postponement of the latest round of talks until late-November. This may explain why Hamas has denied that its operatives were responsible for firing the rocket that hit the Eshkol region of southern Israel last week, and has arrested five men it accuses of the attack.
Perhaps Egypt can succeed where Israel has notably failed – in convincing the leaders of Hamas that terrorism is a two-edged weapon that can bring an unwelcome retribution down on its perpetrators.
The writer’s new book: “The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014” has just been published. He writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com).