CAIRO, Egypt — An Egyptian court on Saturday ruled that Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was a terror organization, in a move that left the Islamist group reeling.
The movement’s deputy head of the political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, a former prime minister in the Gaza Strip, hit back at the announcement, saying “you [Egyptians] have lost your sense of justice.”
“The Brigades are a source of pride, respect and bravery,” he said, according to Ynet.
Since the Egyptian military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the authorities have accused the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip of aiding jihadists who have increased their attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
The announcement of the Hamas ban came two days after Islamic State affiliated-extremists claimed responsibility for a coordinated attack that killed over 30 people, mostly soldiers, on Thursday. The Egyptian government pointed a finger at the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas for the attacks, blaming both for involvement.
“From the very first moment, it was clear that Hamas had a hand in this [attack],” said Ahmed Mousi, a TV presenter on a network close to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, according to Channel 2.
Thursday’s attack was the second major operation on Egyptian security forces in Sinai in the last 6 months; 31 soldiers were killed in another operation in October 2014. The continued success of the Sinai-based Islamic militants, despite more than a year of being targeted by massive military operations, highlights the resilience of the militants and represents an embarrassing security failure for el-Sissi and his administration’s high-profile war on terror..
However el-Sissi immediately laid the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that has been banned from Egypt and declared a terrorist group. El-Sissi, then defense minister, ousted Morsi from the presidency in July 2013 after massive nationwide protests against Morsi’s rule.
Following the ouster, the Egyptian president also cracked down on Hamas, destroying hundreds of tunnels into an out of the blockaded Gaza Strip and keeping the Rafah border crossing tightly monitored and often closed. Egypt was also building a buffer zone with the Palestinian enclave.
Egypt‘s army and jihadists clashed in Sinai Friday after the attack, leaving two children dead. Health officials said a six-month-old baby was shot in the head by a bullet during the clashes and a six-year-old was killed in a rocket blast in the Sinai Peninsula. Two more people including a 12-year-old were badly wounded.
The violence came a day after jihadists targeted security forces with rockets and a car bomb in North Sinai province in simultaneous attacks claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an affiliate of the Islamic State.
Sissi pulled out of an African Union summit in Ethiopia and flew home “to monitor the situation,” his office said. “The army and police will intensify their raids against terrorist and extremist elements in Sinai and across the country,” a military statement said.
The militants say the attacks was in retaliation for a government crackdown on Morsi supporters in which hundreds have been killed, thousands jailed and dozens sentenced to death.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned Thursday’s attacks and said Washington “remains steadfast in its support of the Egyptian government’s efforts to combat the threat of terrorism.”
Late last year, Washington delivered 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt, which has poured troops and armor into the peninsula, for joint counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai.
On Friday, Iran stressed the need for regional cooperation “to combat the terrorist menace in Egypt”.
The main focus of Thursday’s attacks was el-Arish, the provincial capital, where militants fired rockets at a police headquarters, a military base and a residential complex for security forces, officials said.
This was followed by a suicide car bombing and an attack on a military checkpoint south of el-Arish.
Separately an army officer was killed when a rocket struck a checkpoint in Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip.
Officials said at least 62 people were wounded in the attacks.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, claimed the assaults, saying on Twitter it had “executed extensive, simultaneous attacks in the cities of el-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.”
The organization in November pledged allegiance to IS, which has captured large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.
The October attack, also near el-Arish, prompted the authorities to build a buffer zone along the Gaza border to prevent militants infiltrating from the Palestinian enclave.
They have also imposed a state of emergency and night-time curfew in parts of northern Sinai.
“These measures are just random retaliation that creates more terrorism, and what is worse is that it could make residents sympathize” with the extremists, said Ahmed Abdel Rabo, political science professor at Cairo University.
The military said Thursday’s attack was the result of “the failure of Muslim Brotherhood… in spreading chaos on the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution.”
On January 25, 2011, millions of Egyptians protested against president Hosni Mubarak, eventually forcing him to step down.
As Egypt marked the anniversary Sunday, clashes between protesters and police left 20 people dead, mostly in Cairo.
Since Mubarak’s ouster Egypt has been rocked by political and economic turmoil.