Action at last
Ahmed Eleiba reports from North Sinai as the army launches a major campaign against terrorists in the peninsula
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A member of the Egyptian army embraces a relative of one of the soldiers killed during the Rafah attack
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press Egyptian security forces were engaged in battles with militants in several areas of Sinai following Sunday's killing of 16 border guards. Egyptian aircraft struck at targets close to the border with Israel while troops raided villages in a crackdown on the Islamist militants thought to be behind the deadliest attack on security forces in Sinai since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Troops entered the village of Al-Toumah, 20km south of the border crossing, after receiving information that some of the attackers had taken refuge there.
There are reports that 20 terrorists have been killed and three armoured cars destroyed.
Rafah military hospital has received six bodies of participants in the attack killed by Israeli forces after they crossed the border. The corpses are currently undergoing DNA tests in an attempt to identify them.
Rafah's medical authorities have expressed surprise at receiving just six bodies.
"Israel's Minister of Defence Ehud Barak announced that Israeli forces killed eight of the attackers," said Ihsan Kamil, head of forensics at the hospital. "Where are the other two?"
Cairo still does not have a complete picture of the terrorist attack. Intelligence agencies have yet to collate the results of interviews with witnesses.
The results of the investigations are unlikely to be made public anytime soon.
According to leaks from security sources the perpetrators wore identical uniforms and the whole operation, which began at 7pm, took quarter of an hour. Thirty-five men are thought to have been involved in the attack. They entered the checkpoint as the border guards were beginning to break their fast, showering the soldiers with machine gun fire. The assailants then seized two armoured vehicles and headed towards the border with Israel.
One vehicle was destroyed 2.5 kilometres into Israeli territory. The second crashed at the Abu Salem crossing, igniting explosives that the attackers probably intended to use in a suicide operation against the Karam Abu Salem settlement.
The speed with which the armoured personnel carriers were driven suggests the attackers were familiar with such vehicles.
"We have confirmation that one of the Egyptian armoured vehicles breached the Israeli border at Karam Shalom [Abu Salem] and continued for a further 2.5 kilometres into Israeli territory," says Haaretz's Arab affairs correspondent Jackie Khouri. He added that urgent investigations were underway in order to discover how a vehicle could penetrate the border and travel that far into Israel. "We understand from military experts here in Israel and from reports in the Israeli and Egyptian media that Israel had officially cautioned Egypt of the possibility of such an attack. However, we have also learned that an Israeli envoy had presented the relevant agencies in Egypt with precise information. The question here in Israel is why did Egypt not take the necessary precautions?"
Muslim Brotherhood allegations that Mossad was involved in the attack, says Khouri, have been dismissed out of hand in Tel Aviv.
According to Khouri, the bodies of two of the assailants were burned beyond recognition, which was why the Israeli authorities did not hand them over.
Speculation over possible Israeli involvement in the attack via infiltration of the group responsible is based on arguments that Israel is the main beneficiary of the fall out: the closure of the Rafah crossing, a halt to visits by Hamas officials to the presidential palace in Cairo, a clampdown on the passage of goods and people through cross-border tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.
An even greater prize, as far as Israel is concerned, would be the resumption of the "strategic embrace" between Egyptian and Israeli security and intelligence agencies and an enhanced role for the Egyptian-Israeli Beer Sheba/Arish liaison team which meets once every six months.
But, says one source, Israel is not the sole beneficiary of the attack "which is why investigators are considering all possibilities". Particular attention, he adds, should be paid to jihadist groups in Gaza that operate beyond the control of Hamas.
Jihadist groups, notes one source -- a general with close ties to Egyptian Intelligence -- thrive in areas where there is "security chaos". It was clear, he added, that the attack was carried out by people who were highly trained and familiar with the territory.
Clearly frustrated by the way security in the Sinai has been handled till now, he argues that there is an urgent need for a radical overhaul of security arrangements across the peninsula.
"We have explained this to Washington on a number of occasions but it appears that military officials there are convinced that the problem is one of equipment rather than the number of personnel. They say that in other parts of the world, especially in areas of this sort, armed forces are reducing the number of troops in favour of advanced weapons systems."
"It pains me when I have to ask Israel for permission to bring a fighter plane into a part of Egyptian territory or to land it at Arish airport. Israel should understand that my job is to defend Egypt's security before theirs."
Islam Quweidar, a young Bedouin activist, told the Weekly that locals have held several meetings with government officials.
"We've met with security officials and told them there are Palestinian groups with connections in the Sinai. We also told them that suspicious elements from the Gulf have begun to appear in Arish, in Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah, and that we hear stories everywhere about how they are stirring up trouble. We informed them that we know every member of the Rafah group. They told us that they knew them too, but that they were waiting for a directive from Cairo on how to handle them.
It is no secret that Egypt's security agencies have been concerned about the warmth of President Mohamed Mursi's relations with Hamas, and have expressed their unhappiness at the decision to keep the Rafah crossing open. Yet most security officials think the cross border tunnels pose more of a threat, and are far more likely to have been involved in preparations for the attack.
In a telephone interview Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told the Weekly that the first he heard of the attack was two hours after it occurred. Clearly shocked by the audacity of the attack which has sparked an outcry against the tunnels, Al-Zahar conceded the subterranean passageways were the main source of arms for the resistance. He said he was convinced foreign elements were involved in the attack, though unlike Muslim Brotherhood officials in Cairo Al-Zahar made no reference to Israel.
Security officials in the Sinai told the Weekly they estimated there were 400 to 500 jihadists in Sinai. Quweidar places the figure much higher, at 3,000.
Following the attack, in a security reshuffle on Wednesday afternoon, by presidential decree Mursi replaced Major-General Mohamed Naguib, commander of the Republican Guard, with Major-General Mohamed Zaki. He also appointed Major-General Mohamed Abdel-Wahed as acting head of the General Intelligence service instead of Major-General Murad Mowafi. The governor of North Sinai, Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, was removed from his post.