Egypt rankled by Hamas’s burgeoning ties to Islamic State

Cairo learns that IS fighters wounded in attack on its troops in Sinai were smuggled into Gaza via tunnels for treatment

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.

Hamas security forces patrol along the Gaza-Egypt border, April 14, 2016 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Hamas security forces patrol along the Gaza-Egypt border, April 14, 2016 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Cairo is fuming over increasing cooperation between the Palestinian terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Islamic State-affiliated forces in the neighboring Sinai Peninsula, The Times of Israel has learned, despite attempts in recent months to alleviate the tension between Egypt and Gaza.

In an effort to curb that collaboration, Egypt has relayed to Hamas leaders that it is aware of the links between its senior activists in the Rafah border area and commanders in the Islamic State’s Sinai Province.

That cooperation has seen injured IS fighters routinely brought into the Strip for treatment, alongside ongoing weapons smuggling over the border. A few days ago, Cairo discovered that a group of IS fighters wounded during an attack on Egyptian Army soldiers – they were planting explosives on the beach at Al-Arish – were transferred to hospitals in Gaza for treatment.

Egyptian sources say they were likely smuggled into Gaza via tunnels overseen by Hamas’s military wing that facilitate the connection between the two Islamist terror groups.

This highly worrying development for the Egyptians began a few months ago, when prominent members of Hamas’s military wing crossed over from Gaza into Sinai to help IS set up its military infrastructure there. Several of them took their families with them, and were involved in training IS activists in the art of planting IEDs and firing missiles at tanks. Several even joined the IS-affiliated Sinai Province group, including Muhammad Abu Shawish and Abed Al Wahad. Another senior activist in Hamas, Nasser Judah, also originally of Gaza, was killed fighting with IS in Sinai. In May, The Times of Israel identified two more activists who crossed into Sinai as Mohammed Sami and Mahmoud Zinet.

Egyptian sources say that whenever Cairo brings up the issue with Hamas’s leadership, it receives the same evasive answer: the activists assisting IS are all former members of the Palestinian organization. But the dissembling doesn’t end there: Hamas military wing commanders in Rafah regularly host commanders of Sinai Province. One of the most prominent of these is Suleiman Al-Sawarka, whose Al-Sawarka tribe was among the founders of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which went on to pledge allegiance to IS and become Sinai Province.

Al-Sawarka, whom Israel and Egypt accuse of involvement in an attack in Taba in 2004 that killed 34, including 18 Egyptians, arrived in the Strip about two months ago and has been holding talks with senior figures in Hamas’s military wing. Egyptian sources emphasize that he is in Gaza with the blessing of some of the top officers in Hamas, including the commander of the southern Strip, Muhammad Shabbaneh; Hamas military chiefs Muhammad Deif and Marwan Issa; and strongman Yehya Sinwar.

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