El-Sissi’s army goes to war in the Sinai
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Analysis

El-Sissi’s army goes to war in the Sinai

A ferocious helicopter assault, and efforts to establish a security zone, underlines Egypt’s determination to ‘clean out’ the Gaza border area

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Egyptian Army vehicle with a tank heads to the closed Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza strip, in Sheikh Zuweyid, northern Sinai, Egypt, Monday, May 20, 2013 (AP Photo/Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper)
An Egyptian Army vehicle with a tank heads to the closed Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza strip, in Sheikh Zuweyid, northern Sinai, Egypt, Monday, May 20, 2013 (AP Photo/Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper)

Tuesday morning’s bombing by Egyptian gunships of jihadi positions in the northeastern Sinai (town of Sheikh Zuweyid), which reportedly killed dozens, was only the latest in what is becoming a long line of aggressive steps taken by the Egyptian army against the terror groups in the peninsula. Far from the focus of world attention (which is largely devoted to Syria and the Palestinians), out of sight of B’Tselem and the rest of the human rights organizations, the army of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is putting heavy pressure on the terror groups there that identify with al-Qaeda.

According to an Egyptian security source, the Egyptian military establishment is well aware of the high price the country will pay in lives as it battles the Jihadists. “But you can be sure of one thing,” the source said. “We will not end this war until we clean out the area. We will not give in to terror.” These words, heard so often in the past on the Israeli side of the border, underline the common interest between Cairo and Jerusalem these days.

The source also confirmed that Egypt intends to set up a “security zone,” empty of homes and residents, in the densely populated residential border area between Gaza and Sinai, in order to clamp down, once and for all, on the smuggling tunnels. He claimed that this would be done in coordination with representatives of the local population. The authorities have reached an agreement with the heads of tribes living in the area, he said, whereby new homes would be built elsewhere in the Sinai for those who voluntarily evacuate.

The plan is to demolish all buildings in a 500-meter-deep strip along the border, which would make it much harder to dig tunnels between the peninsula and Gaza; the tunnelers would have a lot further to dig.

Israel contemplated similar initiatives in the past, in the days when the IDF controlled the Gaza-Sinai border area. But it never acted, because of a well-grounded fear of the outraged international response.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaking on state television, July 3. (photo credit: Screenshot AP/Egypt State Television)
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaking on state television, July 3. (photo credit: Screenshot AP/Egypt State Television)

To date, the Egyptians have destroyed 10 houses in the Sarsouriya area of Egyptian Rafah, and the intention is to broaden their activities to the area facing Gaza’s Brazil refugee camp. That is the most problematic point for the Egyptians, and it’s where most of the remaining tunnels are located. Since the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi in July, the Egyptian army has managed to shut down about 80 percent of the tunnels there. Only a few dozen are still active.

The tunnels have become a strategic target for the Egyptian army because most of the jihadi terror organizations active in Sinai get their weapons via the Gaza tunnels, and cross through them into the Strip for military training. Activists have been using the tunnels at will to move from the Sinai to Gaza and back again

One of the terror groups active in the peninsula is Jaish al-Islam, the Army of Islam, headed by Mumtaz Durmash, who is known for his good connections with the Hamas leadership. His group has supplied most of the weapons and training to the rest of the armed militias in the Sinai.

Egyptian military and policemen carry coffins, covered with national flags, containing the bodies of off-duty policemen who were killed near the border town of Rafah, North Sinai, upon their arrival at Almaza military airport, Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
Egyptian military and policemen carry coffins, covered with national flags, containing the bodies of off-duty policemen who were killed near the border town of Rafah, North Sinai, upon their arrival at Almaza military airport, Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

Elsewhere in the peninsula, the Egyptian source said, the army has made several significant achievements in recent days, including capturing one of the heads of the Jihadist groups, the al-Qaeda-linked Adel Mohammed Ibrahim (Adel Habirah). Ibrahim, according to Egyptian reports, was responsible for last month’s terror attack in Sinai in which 25 Egyptian policemen, in civilian clothes, were executed. Two other suspects in the attack were arrested: Adel Hussein and Muhamed Fuazi.

The Egyptian security apparatus has also got its hands on most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only a handful of senior figures have managed to avoid arrest. Among them is Mahmoud Izzat, considered the likely successor to Muhammed Badie as leader of the Brotherhood, and Issam al-Aryan.

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