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.
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.
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.