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The tales of Palestinian fighters in Sinai
 
 

“We emphasize that the recent agreements between the infidel Egyptian intelligence and the apostate Hamas leadership, which aim to besiege the mujahideen and tighten the noose around the caliphate soldiers in the blessed land of Sinai, will not be fruitful. And what comes next will be greater. What you heard about us yesterday, you will see with your own eyes today. To the gangs of the apostate Hamas, supporters of the Egyptian military, we say to let up on the mujahideen, or what comes next will be worse and more bitter.”

This harshly worded warning, placing Hamas and Egyptian security forces in the same sentence, took up most of the terse statement released by the Islamic State-affiliate Province of Sinai on September 12. It was the statement in which the group claimed responsibility for the September 11 attack on a security convoy coming from Bir al-Abd, west of Arish, that left 18 Egyptian Armed Forces soldiers dead.

Most notably, however, the statement was the latest in a series of indications pointing to the mounting pressure on the Province of Sinai. This is a product of the recent rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt which, among other things, has led to an Egypt-brokered reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.  

The strengthened security coordination has seen Hamas restrict access to tunnels running underneath the Gaza-Egyptian border, establish a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the border to compliment the buffer zone Egypt began putting in place three years ago to curb smuggling activities, and transfer Gaza’s border control to the Palestinian Authority. In return, Egypt has pledged to ease the siege on the Palestinian territory and provide Gazan citizens with electricity, in addition to opening the Rafah border crossing.

For the Province of Sinai, these moves would effectively stem the influx of Gazan militants into Sinai and cut off a channel that facilitates the provision of training, cadres and weapons.

Hamas’s actions to curtail Palestinian fighters’ movement into Sinai, however, sit in a context of a larger fight with the Salafi movement in Gaza.

Stories of Gaza’s “martyrs” in Sinai

Sobhi al-Attar had been a member of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, before moving to Sinai. “He left the brigades and traveled to Sinai through the tunnels,” a Hamas security official tells Mada Masr, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There, he worked with militants, and he could have contributed to training them in sniper operations.”

In April, which is around when Attar is believed to have moved to Sinai, the Province of Sinai published a promotional video titled “Saeqat al-Qulub,” which focused on sniper operations targeting Egyptian Armed Forces soldiers. The organization has claimed responsibility for dozens of sniper operations over the last six months.

In May, online media platforms close to the Islamic State announced that Attar had died in North Sinai fighting alongside Province of Sinai militants: “The mujahid left for the Islamic State several months ago accompanied by several Gazan youths, including members of Hamas and the Qassam Brigades. And the migration of many loyal Muslim youths from Gaza continues, in order to support the faith and to establish the state of Islam, which has declared the caliphate, Sharia rule and the removal of colonial borders.”

Media sources close to the militants claimed Attar had died in an airstrike carried out by the Israeli Air Force on Egyptian land, while official Islamic State channels in Egypt and Libya did not publish anything regarding the purported strikes.

Sobhi al-Attar

Attar was the nephew of prominent brigades member Raed al-Attar, a member of the High Military Council of the Qassam Brigades and the general commander of the brigade’s Rafah regiment. During the 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza, the Israeli Air Force bombed a five-story house to ensure Raed al-Attar’s death. He had also been convicted by an Egyptian court in the case known in the media as “The Great Escape” from Wadi al-Natroun Prison, for facilitating the escape of Islamist detainees during the January 25, 2011 protests. He was sentenced in absentia to death by hanging in May 2015, after he had already been killed.

At the beginning of June, 10 days after the Province of Sinai announced the death of Sobhi al-Attar, the organization released a statement to announce the deaths of two other Palestinians from within its ranks: Abu Omeir al-Maqdisi (real name: Ahmed Zaqut) and Abu Usama al-Maqdisi (real name: Fady al-Hajjar).

Ahmed Zaqut

A photo of Hajjaar had previously appeared in a pamphlet listing his real name and the names and photos of six others wanted by authorities. The pamphlet was distributed in July 2015 by the Qassam Brigades in the streets of Gaza before the announcement of Hajjaar’s death.

Mohamed Gamal Helmy Abu Dalal, who would be mourned by the Province of Sinai three months later, was one of the six others wanted by the Qassam Brigades.

“Before escaping to work with the Islamic State in Sinai, Hajjar and the six other militants were wanted by both Palestinian security and the Qassam Brigades,” says the Hamas security source. A colleague in the brigades implicated them in the mid-2015 serial bombings that targeted five vehicles belonging to Qassam Brigades commanders and high officials.

No one was killed in the bombings, but Hamas launched an intensive security campaign when Palestinian security officials accused Salafi jihadi groups of executing them with the help of someone inside the Qassam Brigades. The seven militants were: Fady al-Hajjar, Mustafa Nawaf, Nader Besam, Mohamed Shehda al-Dalw, Abdel Rahman Abu Mugheisab, Essam Suleiman al-Nabahin, and Mohamed Gamal Abu Dalal, according to the pamphlet.

Province of Sinai publication mourning Mohamed Gamal Helmy Abu Dalal (Abu Khaled Al-Maqdisi)

Months into the manhunt, the deaths of Fady al-Hajjar (Abu Usama al-Maqdisi) and Nader Besam (Abu Omeir al-Maqdesi) in Sinai were confirmed. Conflicting information emerged regarding Mohamed Shehda al-Dalw. Egyptian media reported that he was killed in clashes with the Armed Forces in Sinai, while Palestinian sources, citing his family, reported that he was killed in Iraq fighting alongside the Islamic State.

In November 2016, the Province of Sinai published the photos and names of dead Palestinian members for the first time, explicitly confirming the presence of non-Egyptian members in its ranks. In this announcement, the organization mourned the death of Abu Bakr al-Ghazawy, who it claimed had participated in the Province of Sinai’s November attack on the Gaz checkpoint near the North Sinai city of Arish that left at least 12 Egyptian soldiers dead.

Abu Bakr al-Ghazawy

There is also Mofteh Abu Athera, who was held captive in Israeli prisons between 2002 and 2005. “After his release from captivity, he returned to Gaza and lived a regular life,” a Palestinian security source in Gaza tells Mada Masr. “After that, his extremism and proximity to extremists was noticed. And in 2014, he escaped Gaza and went to take part in militant work in Egypt. He remained there for a length of time I cannot determine, then moved to work in Libya, before we confirmed his death by a targeted airstrike.”

In February 2016, the Islamic State branch in the Libyan city of Tripoli released an obituary for Athera, without disclosing any further details.

The security source says that Abu Athera’s move from Sinai to fight in Libya suggests two possibilities: that before his death he played a role in the communication between militants in Sinai and their peers in Libya, or that he left Egypt “because of conflicts which arose in the ranks of the militants in Sinai after important military advances by the Egyptian army and the infeasibility of continuing to coordinate infiltration operations.”

This year, a series of announcements by Islamic State media channels revealed the involvement of Palestinian militants in the October 15 attacks on five military checkpoints near the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwayed, including Karm al-Qawadis, in which former senior Qassam Brigades member Louay Harzallah was killed, and the July 7 attack on the Barth checkpoint, south of the North Sinai city of Rafah, which killed at least 23 soldiers.

Pinpointing the roles these militants played in North Sinai before their deaths remains a difficult task. But the Hamas official points out that it is possible to guess some of the missions they undertook if we compare their previous work inside Gaza with an analysis of the military situation in Sinai.

The official says most of the militants began work under the umbrella of the Qassam Brigades or as part of jihadi organizations years ago, long before the rise of operations in Sinai. And during their work in Gaza, the militants had far-reaching connections to larger organizations operating under the banner of Al-Qaeda in the region. Many of them were given opportunities to build a capacity in media communications alongside their military work, which ranged from digging tunnels and sniper operations to infiltration operations.

“All this is in addition to training in the use of advanced weapons, such as anti-vehicular Kornet rockets and the Strela-2 and Strela-3 anti-aircraft systems,” the Hamas source says, arguing that the appearance of these weapons is one of the clearest signs of the participation of Gazans in Sinai battles. “I think these weapons have been used several times in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed specifically.”

These weapons can be seen in promotional footage released by North Sinai militants, as well as in material released by the official spokesperson of Egypt’s Armed Forces. Other advanced weapons also appear in the footage, such as a 14.5 heavy artillery anti-aircraft cannon and BM-21 GRAD missiles. The Province of Sinai also claimed responsibility for an operation that brought down a military helicopter in January 2014 using anti-aircraft weapons. On several occasions, including in July 2014 and February 2017, it has announced that it fired BM-21 GRAD missiles at Israeli land and targeted military vehicles with anti-vehicular missiles.

Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, a researcher on terrorism at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, is less convinced about the importance of foreign nationals in the operations of the Province of Sinai. “The number of foreigners out of the total number of militants in Sinai does not exceed 10 to 20 percent,” he says, “and about 80 percent of those are Palestinian.”

Although analysis of security operations in Sinai confirms the involvement of Palestinian militants in large-scale attacks from the Karm al-Qawadis operation in October 2014 through the attack on the Barth checkpoint this July, Beheiry argues that there is no evidence that Palestinians occupy leadership roles. “From the days of Tawhid wal-Jihad [a Sinai and Gaza-based militant group established in 1997] to today, militant organizations in Sinai are led by Egyptians, specifically people from Sinai tribes or others associated with these tribes from the Delta governorates.”

Beheiry’s analysis aligns with the numbers in a report published in September by US think tank the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, titled “Gaza Jihadists Undermine Egypt-Hamas Cooperation.” It cites an informed source in the Hamas government’s security apparatus as saying that “at least 130 Palestinians joined ISIS’s Sinai branch during the past three years, some of whom were previously [Qassam Brigade fighters].” Some of the most prominent of these, it says, were Mohamed Hassan Abu Shaweesh, “a leading field commander in Palestinian Rafah, who joined Wilayat Sinai in early 2016. The loss of such prominent figures shocked Hamas and spread concern that extremist ideology was widespread in its ranks.”

How Gazan fighters started flocking to Egypt

For Egypt, the connection between Salafi Jihadis in the country and their counterparts in Gaza started with the militant operations in Sinai in the first half of the 2000s, particularly with the rise of the Tawhid wal-Jihad group and its founder Khaled Musaed.

Several indicators point to a relationship between Tawhid wal-Jihad and the Salafi movement in Gaza, and suggest it continued with the founding of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in 2011, before the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and rebranded itself the Province of Sinai in 2014. Many Tawhid wal-Jihad figures reappeared in the ranks of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in the 2000s.

In a 2017 study titled “From Tawhid wal-Jihad to Ansar Beit al-Maqdes,” Ahmed Farid Mawlana, a researcher and leading figure in Egyptian political group the Salafi Front, asserts that several Gazan Salafis were members of the nascent Egyptian iteration of Tawhid wal-Jihad, including brothers Yasser and Ahmed Muheisan and Eyad Saeed Saleh. Saeed Saleh was the bomber who carried out Tawhid wal-Jihad’s first operation, which launched jihadi violence in Sinai in 2004 by driving a car rigged with explosives into the Taba Hilton Hotel on the Egyptian-Israeli border.

When Musaed was killed in clashes with police in 2005, Tawhid wal-Jihad came under the leadership of Nasr al-Malahi, who began extending ties with Salafis in Gaza and sending supporters to the Palestinian territory for armament and explosive device training, according to investigations by the Egyptian general prosecution at the time.

That same year, Salafi criticism of Hamas began to increase due to the Gazan group’s decision to partake in politics and parliamentary elections. Salafis doubled down on their criticism when Hamas took full control of Gaza, as they perceived Hamas as dragging its feet in implementing Sharia law and as complicit in pacification agreements with Israel.

One critical voice to emerge was that of Abdel Latif Moussa, who founded the Salafi jihadi group Jund Ansar Allah in 2008.

Moussa had lived in Egypt in the 1980s and studied medicine at Alexandria University, where he was influenced by the sermons of Salafi preachers. After his return to Gaza and his work as a preacher in the Ahl al-Sunna Mosque in Rafah, Moussa began embracing and circulating the ideas of leading Al-Qaeda figures Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Mosab al-Zarqawi, and was one of the early leaders of jihadi Salafism. He adopted the idea of undertaking jihadi operations to establish a caliphate state and to launch operations from that state’s regional borders, rather than to merely attack an opponent’s land, as Al-Qaeda operations had done before the Islamic State came to be.

Moussa’s criticisms of Hamas, which after Gaza’s 2006 parliamentary elections included publicly denounced its leadership as infidels, were more than the Gazan leadership could bear. He had become the organization’s natural opponent as far as the sizeable Islamist public was concerned, and indeed had already begun influencing the general mood of some Qassam militants. The sentiment reached its zenith when Moussa publicly called for building an Islamic state on Palestinian lands, with Gaza as the starting point.


And then came August 14, 2009, a landmark day in the internal struggle between Hamas and the Salafis. It was the day that Moussa, from the pulpit in the Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque, announced the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. He directed members to put on explosive belts and march around the city.

The Qassam Brigades sent Abu Jibreel al-Shamali, a prominent commander who had been involved in the capture of Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, to negotiate with the militants once they retreated into the mosque. After the negotiations, Shamali was killed at the door of the mosque.

In a statement, the Qassam Brigades blamed Moussa’s men for Shamali’s death. “Abu Jibreel spent years of his life in jihad for God hoping to meet Him as a martyr of direct confrontation with the occupation forces in order to rub their noses in the dirt, but God’s will be done,” it said. “A sector of aggressors came out and declared that the resilient Hamas and its government, who are patient against all conspiracies, are apostates.”

Hamas’ response was swift and conclusive. They directed heavy gunfire at the mosque and surrounding buildings. Dozens were wounded on both sides, and 24 people were killed, including Moussa and Abu Abdalla al-Muhajer (sometimes known as Abu Abdallah al-Suri), who was Moussa’s military commander and once active in the Qassam Brigades.

For the Hamas security official, this was a watershed moment. “Since this incident, many young people in the Qassam Brigades have leaned toward the jihadis, at least intellectually if not necessarily organizationally,” he says. “Anyone engaged in armed struggle has ideas which lean toward extremism and away from civic life. However, the narrative of victimhood of the Abdel Latif Moussa group played a role. And it is not strange to later find those individuals taking on roles in helping extremists in their wars, years after the mosque incident, as in Syria, after the Arab Spring, and in Egypt, particularly after the removal of [Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed] Morsi. Not only did Hamas’s political leadership not issue a political decision to advance this. It ran contrary to their desires.”

Moussa was killed, but he left behind some disciples.

One disciple is Nour Sobhi Eissa, a young leading Palestinian militant who was arrested in the Salam neighborhood, east of the Palestinian city of Rafah near the border with Egypt, on October 6.

In a statement announcing the arrest, Hamas’s Interior Ministry Spokesperson Eyad al-Bazm said the 27-year-old Eissa, also known as Abu Anas al-Maqdisi and Abu Anas al-Ghazi, is “one of the most important wanted people in Gaza, known for his allegiance to the Islamic State.”

Sources familiar with Eissa’s movements had stated that he was planning to leave Gaza for Sinai after being pursued by Hamas and the Qassam Brigades for over a year. Eissa was also wanted by Egyptian security forces, who accused him of direct involvement in the kidnapping of Egyptian soldiers in May 2013, according to the Hamas official.

In the weeks after Morsi’s ouster, Egyptian newspapers published leaked documents attributed to Palestinian intelligence in Ramallah that accused Eissa and another Palestinian jihadi of kidnapping seven Egyptian soldiers in Sinai and releasing them a couple of days later. While the leaks held the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza responsible for the kidnapping, Hamas forces had in fact intensified the search for Eissa, whom reports indicate moved several times between Gaza, Sinai and Libya in the following few years.

In an interview with Mada Masr preceding Eissa’s arrest, the Hamas official described Eissa as a student of Moussa who was particularly enthusiastic about the Islamic Emirate he had declared.

Eissa never missed an opportunity to attack Hamas and speak about his struggle with the Gazan government’s security forces. In an interview published in February with the Ibn Taymiyyah Center for Media (a pulpit of Salafi jihadism in Gaza), Eissa castigated Hamas for betraying the struggle against Israel. “We continue our jihad and are careful to point the compass toward the Jews, as long as Hamas would stop spilling our blood,” he said. “The truth is that this fighting against the Salafi mujahideen extends ten years back and has never stopped. But about a year and a half ago, Hamas security started to be confident in its abilities and arrested and tortured […] We must call forth images from the practices of Hamas security with preachers and mujahideen and save it for the day of reckoning.”

Swipe left for a rundown of Salafi jihadi organizations in Gaza.

How Hamas has collaborated with Egypt to stop Gazan militancy in Sinai

Hamas and Egypt’s negotiations have proved fruitful in recent months. Security sources in Gaza revealed that in mid July 2017, Egyptian intelligence staff gave security apparatuses in Gaza “material evidence that dissenting members from the armed wing of the Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, one of the armed factions in Gaza, planned operations against Israel through Sinai.”

According to the same report, the Hamas government’s internal security forces arrested Youssef Abu Zur, leader of the suicide unit in the Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, along with others based on the same intelligence.

According to the Hamas security official, “Hamas was not responsible for militants moving from Gaza to Egypt, or to other places, be they Libya or Syria. Most of those who moved were pursued or apprehended by security forces. And this has been a constant for many years. There is a clear belief on the part of the politicians of Gaza that the existence of organizations which work under the patronage of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State are a threat to the security of the resistance in Gaza as a whole.”

However, the official admits that Hamas’s pursuit of extremists has “fluctuated depending on relations with Egypt,” which impacted whether Hamas lent an ear to Egypt’s demands to arrest certain individuals. “And usually Hamas would cooperate, or at least would not impede Egyptian efforts.”

Beheiry agrees with the notion that Hamas performed a subtle calculus in its relationship with Egypt. “There are no indications that there was an organization decision from Hamas to work alongside takfiri organizations in Sinai,” he says. “But the movement used to help these organizations indirectly by looking the other way when it came to the movement of individuals to and from Gaza. This has two reasons: first, succumbing to the influence of the Salafi jihadi organizations within Gaza, prior to the intensification of Hamas’s security crackdown on Salafis in the past few months; and second, the use of the issue to apply pressure on the Egypt, which has indeed resulted in successful negotiations.”

For Hamas’s official Spokesperson Fawzy Barhoum, “there is one constant target for Hamas, and that is the Israeli occupation. The only available space to work toward that target is Palestinian land and not a single inch abroad, not even Jews outside Palestinian land,” he tells Mada Masr.

Barhoum, who was head of the Political and Moral Guidance Authority at the Interior and National Security Ministry of Hamas’ government until 2011, argues that deviance within Hamas’s ranks was stamped out immediately. “Whoever worked with militant cells was either discharged from the movement or broke ranks with it. And when the brothers [in Hamas] received a list from Egyptian security of the names of some of these individuals, Hamas responded to Egypt along three lines: the individual in question had either been discharged, was wanted by Palestinian security or had no relation to the movement at any point.”

According to Barhoum, another of Hamas’s political aims is to secure an Arab contingent which can serve as a guarantor of the Palestinian people and cause. “For us Egypt has always been number one in this regard,” he says, adding that after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, there was a clear political crisis between the Hamas and the post-Mubarak government. “Despite being innocent of all the charges reported by Egyptian media, the desire to replace the enemy of Israeli occupation with Hamas was very strong.”

Nonetheless, Barhoum agrees with accounts that frame the recent rapprochement as a new page for the neighboring governments. “Hamas succeeded in regaining the trust of the Egyptian state on both the political and security level,” he says, “reestablishing lines of communication which had indeed been severed.”

“Everything Egyptians have asked for in the security sector has been done, particularly when it comes to border control,” Barhoum adds. “National security forces have spread themselves along the border and put forth a plan reviewed in detail in the meeting between the Palestinian security delegation and Egyptian authorities. It includes the establishment of a buffer zone on the border with Egypt and setting up surveillance cameras. This plan is now a priority for the movement.”

Hamas is scheduled to finish the buffer zone once surveillance cameras and watchtowers are installed to create an enclosed security zone, houses on the border are removed, and their residents are compensated, according to the statements of Major General Tawfik Abu Naeem, Palestinian deputy interior minister.

The rapprochement has produced several tangible changes in Palestine’s internal dynamics and the relationship with Egypt: the Cairo-brokered Hamas and Fatah reconciliation, Hamas’s handover of control over border crossings to the Palestinian Authority, and the three-day opening of the Rafah border crossing from November 18 to 20.

Even amid this new coordination, Egypt is expending political capital to prop up a stable Gaza, most recently exerting pressure on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization to dissuade them from opening a front against Israel and hosting delegations from 13 Palestinian factions for talks that ended with a joint statement of an intention to hold a general election in Palestine 2018. But the security situation remains tenuous. After the attack on North Sinai’s Rawda mosque last week, the planned opening of the Rafah crossing was cancelled. On Thursday, Israeli tanks and aircraft fired on Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions in Gaza, after militants fired mortar rounds on Israeli soldiers earlier in the day.

Translated by Omar El Adl

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