Hamas officials rejected Egypt’s claims of Palestinian involvement in last week’s terror attack in northern Sinai, claiming that smuggling tunnels leading from Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula were completely destroyed two years ago.
“Gaza has nothing to do with what is happening inside Egypt,” Hamas’s interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bozum asserted in comments posted on his ministry’s website Saturday. “Tunnels between Gaza and Egypt no longer exist and have become a thing of the past since the Egyptian army shut them more than two years ago.”
Egypt’s deputy interior minister, Samih Bashadi, told Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that a suicide attack on an army checkpoint near the town of el-Arish last Friday that killed over 30 soldiers was carried out with the help of Palestinian operatives. Bashadi was elaborating on statements made earlier by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who spoke of “foreign hands” involved in the attack.
But the Egyptian army seemed unconvinced on Monday by Bozum’s reassurance that “the border with Egypt is controlled and safe, subjected to increased oversight by Palestinian security agencies.” According to London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat, the army has begun a process of “temporary demographic redistribution” of the population living along the Egyptian side of the border, removing 680 families from their homes to create a buffer zone of 1.5 to 3 kilometers.
An unnamed security source told the daily that houses along the border contain tunnel shafts that are difficult to detect unless destroyed.
Meanwhile, Egyptian attack helicopters carried out airstrikes against targets in el-Arish and Sheikh Zweid in northern Sinai on Sunday, Al-Masry Al-Youm daily reported. Twenty-three members of the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis were killed, the daily claimed, including two who participated in Friday’s attack. Arms depots and vehicles used by the terrorists were also destroyed.
Egypt began cracking down on smuggling tunnels from Gaza in 2009, but redoubled its efforts in August 2012 following a terror attack that left 16 border police dead near the border with Israel. Under deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian army started flooding tunnels with sewage in early 2013.
Insisting that no tunnels currently function under the border, Hamas official Ahmad Youssef told Ma’an news agency Monday that the Egyptian decision to create a buffer zone will “not affect the Gaza Strip.” He said Hamas was willing to deploy its forces along the border to increase Egypt’s sense of security.
But Hamas’s foreign relations chief Osama Hamdan told Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news channel Sunday that the new buffer zone amounts to “incitement against the Palestinian people” and will “deepen the siege imposed on Gaza for years.” Hamdan claimed that “Israeli hands” were involved in the Sinai attacks.
Egypt, for its part, has shut the Rafah Crossing with Gaza on Saturday until further notice. Hamas’s ministry of interior stopped registering passengers wishing to enter Egypt by land.