Amid turmoil, crossing to Gaza closed indefinitely by Egypt

Two Palestinian men suspected of involvement in September assassination attempt on Egyptian interior minister

An Egyptian army watchtower on the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip, July 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
An Egyptian army watchtower on the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip, July 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Egyptian authorities announced Saturday that the Rafah crossing connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip would be closed until further notice, the Egypt Independent reported on Sunday.

The crossing was opened last week to allow Gazan pilgrims to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, but has largely remained closed by Egypt since the July 3 popular uprising/military coup which toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

Egyptian military and police forces in Sinai have been the subject of several deadly attacks by Islamic groups, whom authorities suspect have ties to terror group Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Over the weekend, a video released over the Internet revealed that it was an ex-Egyptian army officer who carried out a suicide bombing last month that unsuccessfully targeted the country’s interior minister, and, according to Egypt Independent, the attack was organized by a cell that included two Palestinians.

The failed car bomb assassination and increasing attacks in Sinai have raised fears of an escalating Islamic militant campaign of revenge over the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those worries saw soldiers escort teachers to class for the first day of school Saturday in the Sinai. Christians canceled a planned festival in southern city of Luxor.

Military officials declined to comment about the video, posted in the name of the Ansar Jerusalem militant group, which has carried out other attacks in the Sinai. But it comes as security officials already fired one police officer over alleged ties with Islamists.

The video posted on militant websites shows a man identified as Waleed Badr, who wears a uniform with a rank of a major. He says in the video that the Egyptian army is “bent on fighting religion” and “loves America” more than Egyptians.

The video also shows a car in streets described as being close to the home of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in Cairo. It shows the minister’s motorcade and provided a description of his armored SUV. The video does not explain, however, why the September 5 bombing failed to kill Ibrahim. The blast killed one bystander and injured 22.

Ansar Jerusalem already claimed responsibility for last week’s bomb attack on a military intelligence compound in the Suez canal city of Ismailia and for a suicide car bomb attack on a security headquarters in the town of el-Tor in southern Sinai on October 7. Earlier, the group claimed attacks on gas pipelines to Israel, rockets attacks targeting Israel and a 2012 shootout along the Israeli-Egyptian border in which three militants and an Israeli soldier were killed.

Militants have stepped up attacks in the Sinai since the coup, deepening the already volatile security situation that took a toll on tourism, a significant source of revenue for the impoverished population of an area long neglected by Cairo authorities. Officials also said that four militants were arrested late Saturday in the northern Sinai capital el-Arish with laptops that carried footage of the attack against the minister and other security officials.

On Saturday, hundreds of children in northern Sinai returned to school as classes resumed more than a month after the official start of the school year elsewhere in Egypt. Security was tight as police erected checkpoints around El-Arish. Troops and armored police vehicles deployed near schools and learning centers.

In Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, the military escorted buses carrying teachers to and from school with armored vehicles out of fear of possible attacks, security officials in the area said.

In El-Arish, officials arrested four alleged Muslim Brotherhood members for attempting to stage a protest in front of a school to prevent it from opening Saturday, security officials said.

All security officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to publicly brief journalists.

In recent weeks, militants have taken their fight against the security forces beyond northern Sinai, carrying out bombings in the Suez Canal area. Muslim Brotherhood supporters also have staged near-daily rallies around the country, protesting the security crackdown in which hundreds have been killed and more than 2,000 of group’s members have been jailed.

In the ever-worsening political chaos, suspected Islamic militants have increasingly targeted Egypt’s Coptic Christians. In the latest such attack, masked gunmen fired on a Coptic church holding a wedding in the Cairo district of Warraq, killing 5 people and injuring more than a dozen others.

Sunday’s assault on the church raised fear of more attacks on Copts and prompted authorities to cancel a popular annual Christian festival, celebrating St. George in the ancient city of Luxor in southern Egypt. It was the first time in decades that the popular religious festival traditionally held in mid-November had been canceled.

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