No summer break in the violent Middle East

Amid horrific bloodshed all around Israel, Hamas is redoubling efforts to regain center stage — defying Egypt, and seeking to abduct IDF soldiers

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 terrorists in Gaza pose on anniversary of prisoner exchange deal for Gilad Shalit. October 18, 2012 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Hamas terrorists in Gaza pose on anniversary of prisoner exchange deal for Gilad Shalit. October 18, 2012 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Here’s a short, random list of some of the major events that occurred in the Middle East just this past week: Hundreds of Syrians were killed in a chemical warfare attack in the suburbs of Damascus (the exact number is unknown, though the Syrian opposition counted over 1,300); 25 Egyptian police officers in civilian clothes were massacred in Sinai as they proceeded toward one of the military bases in the peninsula; a court in Cairo announced former president Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison while Mohammed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested by Egyptian authorities and 38 prisoners suffocated to death in an Egyptian jail; four rockets were fired from south Lebanon into northern Israel, one of them intercepted by Iron Dome, prompting an Israeli airstrike in response; Syrian missiles fell on the Lebanese town of Harmel, a well-known Hezbollah stronghold; dozens were killed in Iraq in a series of terror attacks… and the list goes on.

The Middle East did not take a break for the summer; it didn’t even slow down to catch its breath. The summer heat seemed to have peaked violence and bloodshed, with each week bringing more viciousness than the incomprehensible levels of violence of the week before.

Egypt and al-Qaeda

For a fleeting moment this past week, it seemed that the protests in Egypt against the military and the new regime were beginning to abate, and then the court’s decision to release former president Mubarak was announced, threatening to reignite protests.

The Egyptian army has made a certain amount of progress in its attempt to stabilize the situation in the capital and other cities. The remaining Muslim Brotherhood leadership has gone into hiding following an especially large wave of arrests that placed nearly all of its dominant leaders behind bars: Badie, Khairat el-Shater, Morsi of course, and Safwat Hegazi have all been arrested by Egyptian authorities and will stand trial.

Hamas forces patrolling the Gaza-Egypt border (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatab/ Flash 90)
Hamas forces patrolling the Gaza-Egypt border (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatab/ Flash 90)

In such difficult times, any Brotherhood activity becomes a great challenge. Everyone has become a target; anyone can be arrested at any time. This may also explain the steep decline in the number of protesters over the past week. Even American and Western criticism of the Egyptian military has subsided to the extent that the White House even denied a report that President Barack Obama had decided to stop its foreign aid to Egypt.

These developments are certainly good news for Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his fellow leaders, though at this point, it remains difficult to assess what impact the first pictures of Mubarak outside of jail will have on the military’s partial success.

As a fragile calm settled on Cairo, the number of violent clashes in Sinai was on the rise. Thirty-five shooting incidents between the Egyptian army and Jihadist armed forces were reported in the past week alone. Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime fell, 120 soldiers and Jihadists were killed in Sinai. This number includes the 25 Egyptian soldiers who were executed early this week by armed extremists in northeastern Sinai.

One of the developments in the region that especially concerns Cairo is that Bedouin tribes that had so far avoided supporting terrorists have recently begun to take a stance against the Egyptian army and assist the Jihadists. These tribes are not traditional, enthusiastic global Jihad supporters, such as the Barikat clan and parts of the Suwarka tribes. These are new groups of Sinai Bedouins who are now beginning to support the extremist organizations for the first time.

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)

Two regions in Sinai present the greatest Jihadist threat. The first is al-Madeya, not far from the Israeli border (opposite the Israeli villages of Yevul and Naveh) in the Rafah and el-Arish region (areas controlled by the Barikat tribe), and the second is Jabal Hilal. Nevertheless, the Egyptian army has so far refrained from launching a broader attack against these two strongholds.

The terrorist attack this week may trigger a widespread operation in these specific areas, despite the immense numbers of casualties expected as a result. Al-Madeya and Jabal Hilal are heavily populated areas and the Jihadist militants hide amongst civilians. A military attack will result in many civilian deaths and will most likely drive additional Bedouin tribes to support the terrorist groups that operate in Sinai.

Over the past six weeks, the Egyptian army has preferred to focus its operations on the northeastern corner of the border with Gaza, not far from al-Madeya. Large Egyptian forces are concentrated there and the majority of shooting incidents occurred in that region as well.

This region was strategically selected when Egypt declared war against the tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza. The army’s priorities are quite logical. The tunnels have become a major threat to the safety of the soldiers stationed in Sinai; those responsible for the attack this week, as well as the terrorist attack last August, received their ammunition from Gaza and were even trained there.

Currently, 15 major terrorist groups operate in Sinai, each affiliated with global Jihad — al-Qaeda-style ideology — to some extent. The number of soldiers among these semi-tribal militant forces is estimated at several hundred, though when the number of supporters is taken into account, the estimates reach thousands of people who are involved in Jihadist efforts in Sinai.

Four of the 15 groups are considered the most dominant: The first is Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, a primarily Barikat organization; the second is Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen; the third is Jaysh al-Islām, the most long-standing group based in the Gaza Strip, with many branches throughout Egypt; and the fourth is al-Tawid, which is actually comprised of several smaller groups, some of which are well known in Egypt for their terrorist activity.

Each of these groups, without exception, is closely linked to terrorist activists in the Gaza Strip. What’s more, Egyptian and Israeli authorities are aware that several of the most dominant Jihadi activists in Sinai, including those who were involved in the attack against the army last year, are now hiding in Gaza with Hamas’s knowledge and consent.

This also explains Cairo’s rage at the leadership in Gaza. Cairo has finally realized that Hamas not only turns a blind eye to Jihadist activity in Sinai, but occasionally offers assistance as well.

Palestinian Hamas security forces patrol the border area in Rafah between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian Hamas security forces patrol the border area in Rafah between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The first time that Hamas and Islamist terrorists collaborated with each other was during the downfall of Mubarak’s regime in 2011 in the famous Wadi Natrun jail break. Thousands of inmates escaped, including global Jihad activists and Iman Nofel, a senior member of the Hamas military wing who reached Gaza — where he was appointed commander of one of the Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam divisions. It was later reported that Nofel brought a group of Jihadists into the Gaza Strip, where they were protected by Hamas. Another well-known prisoner in that same jail break was Morsi, who will stand trial for that memorable escape.

Egyptian authorities have made unsuccessful attempts to warn Hamas against continued support of organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Cairo has made it clear to the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist organization that it was well aware that several senior members of these terrorist groups have found a haven in Gaza and that Jaysh al-Islām (the Army of Islam), led by Mumtaz Durmush, who is known for his excellent relationship with Hamas, offers its services to other organizations that share al-Qaeda’s ideology.

In other words, Jihadi activists in Sinai have crossed through the tunnels time and again for basic military training in Gaza and to acquire weapons and ammunition. El-Sissi therefore decided to focus military efforts on closing the tunnels. And indeed, only about 50-60 of the 650 previously active tunnels in Rafah remain open and are carefully supervised by the Egyptian army.

But Hamas refuses to cooperate and even released many Jihadist activists from prison in honor of the recent end-of-Ramadan holiday. In addition, a group of Hamas activists was recently arrested at the Cairo airport with forged passports as they attempted to smuggle weapons from Iran into Gaza.

Tunnel workers taking time off to pray on the Gaza side of Rafah. (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Tunnel workers taking time off to pray on the Gaza side of Rafah. (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Since last week’s attack, the Egyptian army realized that even completely shutting down the tunnels will not resolve the problem that has developed in Sinai. As long as the leaders of the organizations remain active and highly motivated, terrorist activity in Sinai will not cease.

Fortunately for Egypt, the Jihadist organizations in Sinai have not yet succeeded in coordinating their activity. There is no single body that directs and controls the war against the Egyptian army; on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to cause significant damage to the large number of branches and arms, since they are without distinct leadership.

Despite Hamas’s attempts to ignore the signals that it receives from Egypt and to keep a low profile, it has been working tirelessly to reignite terrorist activity in the West Bank. These should not be mistaken for signs of empowerment, as they are clearly indications of distress. Hamas has reached rock bottom both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Hamas’s attempts to incite terrorist activity in the West Bank are motivated by its struggle to restore its status as a central authority for the Palestinian people without risking clashes with the IDF in Gaza.

Increasing numbers of terror alerts have been piling up in the Shin Bet and Palestinian Authority security offices. Hamas activists in Gaza, particularly those who were released and sent to Gaza as part of the prisoner exchange deal for Gilad Shalit’s release in 2011, are now trying to establish a terrorist network to carry out terrorist attacks such as abducting Israelis, in order to disrupt the relative peace and quiet.

One of the leaders of this initiative is Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, who is responsible for coordinating the organization’s attempts to carry out attacks and abduct IDF soldiers. These attempts have so far been thwarted by the PA, and especially by the Shin Bet and the IDF. But the increasing number of threats and warnings make it difficult to ignore the likelihood of an eventual successful abduction or terrorist attack.

Meanwhile in the West Bank

The West Asian soccer championship for young leagues (under age 19) began at Faisal al-Husseini stadium in al-Ram (south of Ramallah) last Sunday. The first game, between Palestine and Jordan, was tied 2-2.

The games were a world away from Intifada and terrorism. Few fans arrived to watch, but the first international championship hosted in Palestine was a festive occasion.

Nevertheless, a certain degree of tension and strife was inevitable. The championship began two days behind schedule, because several delegation members were not granted entry permits from Israel into the West Bank. On the previous Thursday, Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Soccer League, sent a letter to the soccer governing body, FIFA, demanding that the organization suspend Israel’s membership because of its decision to deny entry to 30 members of the league’s administration for security reasons, including representatives from Iraq and the UAE.

Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who holds an official role in the West Asian Soccer Association, also harshly criticized the delayed entry.

Israel claimed that Rajoub’s demands were purely political and noted that all but five of the delayed representatives were eventually admitted. On the other hand, this claim would seem to prove Rajoub’s case. Why did Israel delay 25 members of the administration for security reasons if they were finally granted entry after their cases were reconsidered due to international pressure on Israel? Even if the Israeli authorities did not have the wrong intentions, Palestinian public relations once again succeeded in embarrassing Israel and damaging its reputation, this time on the soccer field.

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