Sit-in protests in the Gaza Strip on Thursday called on Egypt to find the four Palestinians who allegedly went missing in Sinai on August 19.
Eyewitnesses claimed that the four men, all aged in their 20s, were on a bus going from the Rafah border crossing to Cairo when masked assailants kidnapped them at gunpoint. Family members allege they were on their way to the Cairo International Airport to seek medical treatment abroad.
Activists, including dozens of family members related to the missing men, gathered near the Rafah border crossing into Egypt on Thursday afternoon, holding up signs reading, “Bring back the abducted,” the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported.
Another protest was staged earlier in the morning in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Gaza City, where the demonstrators directed their demands to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Ma’an said. The protesters called on the Egyptian authorities to act swiftly to locate the abducted men and secure their release, Ma’an reported.
Hamas — the political party that governs Gaza — is also exhorting the authorities to find and release the young men, who are reportedly members of both Hamas and its militant affiliate, the Qassam Brigades.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry has not issued an official statement on the alleged abduction, and according to local media outlets, Egyptian officials are insisting that they do not know of their whereabouts, nor has any group claimed responsibility for their alleged kidnapping.
However, several Arabic-language news outlets have cited an unnamed security official as claiming that the Province of Sinai — a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State — kidnapped the four men as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the release of 50 Egyptian Islamists said to be detained in Gaza’s prisons.
Speaking from the Rafah sit-in, Ahmed Bahr — deputy speaker of the Palestinian Parliament and a leading Hamas official — called for the establishment of a joint Egyptian-Palestinian task force to “investigate all the details of the abduction so as to identify the motives [for the assault] and punish the perpetrators.”
“The abduction is a political, legal and ethical crime, as well as a dangerous attempt to drag the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian resistance into a trap,” Bahr argued.
A host of Arabic-language news outlets have published statements attributed to the Qassam Brigades that blame a concerted Egyptian-Israel security plan targeting Hamas members for the disappearance.
The Egyptian authorities have adopted an antagonistic relationship with Hamas since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013.
The government classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a banned terrorist organization in December 2013, and since then, Hamas — which first emerged as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — has often been blamed for organizing terrorist acts across Egypt by the local authorities.
In January 2015, an Egyptian court declared the Qassam Brigades to be a terrorist group, and in February the judiciary levied the same ruling against Hamas. The Cairo Court of Urgent Matters reversed the ruling against Hamas in June.
But despite that reversal, local media reporting on the unfolding story have used vehemently anti-Hamas rhetoric. On Monday, Ashraf Aboul Hol — an editor for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper — alleged that Hamas itself had kidnapped its own members in an article entitled “The secret of the disappearance of Palestinians in Sinai.”
“This is a ploy by Hamas to distance itself from its terrorist operations,” he claimed, further alleging that the four disappeared men had likely joined up with other armed Islamist groups in Sinai to assist them in terrorist operations against Egyptian security forces.
Echoing Aboul Hol’s sentiments, TV anchor Dina Ramez lambasted Hamas members as “cockroaches” who had no place in Sinai during her show on the privately owned satellite channel Sada al-Balad. She called on the “lions” of the Egyptian Armed Forces to use bug spray or a slipper to eradicate these “pests.”