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Tactical victories
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 09 - 2013

Introducing an update on the army operations in the Sinai against terrorist and militant jihadist groups, military spokesman Staff Colonel Mohamed Ahmed Ali stressed that Sinai is of great national and historic value to Egypt and vital to national security as the country's eastern portal. He also underscored the fact that the situation in Sinai is the product of many years of neglect which generated problems that terrorist groups exploited in order to further their political objectives. The Armed Forces realised that the spread of terrorist and criminal groups in North Sinai posed a grave threat to national security and that, if left unchecked, could threaten regional and international security. In keeping with its sense of duty and its responsibilities to the nation, the Armed Forces therefore launched the military operation that is still in progress.
Violence in North Sinai has soared since the success of the 30 June Revolution as terrorist elements have escalated their attacks on the Armed Forces and police and terrorised and threatened the lives of locals, says Colonel Ali. He listed the many attacks against military and police personnel, security roadblocks, government buildings, civil targets and strategic economic targets, including repeated bombing of the natural gas pipeline.
“The Armed Forces have sustained many losses in lives and material. After exhausting all efforts at dialogue... the Armed Forces were forced to shift from reaction to action. It then broadened its operations against terrorist and criminal elements which it resolved to treat with the utmost strength and resolve. All necessary measures are currently being taken to purge Sinai of terrorist and criminal enclaves and to impose the control of the state and the rule of law.”
Colonel Ali, who was addressing a press conference at the State Information Service on Sunday, stressed that six considerations were observed in the course of carrying out the operations.
“The first is to take out important targets with minimum human, material and moral losses. The second is to restrict engagement to armed elements that raise their weapons. The third consideration is the topographical nature of Sinai, the rugged nature of which is useful to groups that operate outside the law and which requires diversity in the forces and arms systems employed. The fourth consideration is the demographic composition of the indigenous inhabitants and their customs and traditions which we are fully committed to respecting, just as we are to safeguarding the rights, freedoms and interests of our people in Sinai. Fifth is the need to possess accurate intelligence and a precise map of targets which constitute a basic guarantee for the mission's success. The sixth consideration is the need to instil security as one of the facets of a comprehensive plan for the development of Sinai.”
The military spokesman proceeded to an account of the progress of operations up to the time of the press conference.
“August and the first week of September brought the highest rates in missions to eliminate terrorist hideouts. Armed Forces operations extended beyond raids against criminal and terrorist lairs to include actions against illegal immigration and various smuggling activities,” he said.
In the course of operations 309 takfiri elements were apprehended, 136 in July, 140 in August and 33 in the first week of September. In addition, 36 pieces of heavy weaponry (mortar guns, anti-aircraft missiles, RPG-missiles, etc) and large quantities of light weapons (rifles, guns, etc.) were seized. Among the ammunition received, which included high-calibre machine gun belts, thousands of rounds of gun and rifle bullets and mines, were hand grenades stamped with the label Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas in Gaza.
Other seized items pointed to Hamas as a major supplier. These included 678 laptops, explosive devices and other equipment known to be used by Hamas. In addition, the spokesman said, the military destroyed 10 tonnes of TNT, 302 vehicles, some of which were equipped with heavy weapons, 601 houses that were being used as hideouts, and seven arms and ammunition warehouses. Among the items seized were 19 cartons of carbon sheets and four sacks of ignition powder which is used to manufacture homemade missiles. All these items were discovered in Al-Mahdiya village, a stronghold of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a militant jihadist group associated with Al-Qaeda. A suitcase containing 10 passports and identity documents of different nationalities and three bat parachutes that can be used in vertical aerial attack missions at ranges of up to 350km was also discovered. On the border with Gaza 154 smuggling tunnels have been destroyed along with 108 fuel tanks capable of storing four million litres of gasoline.
Colonel Ali denied that the army had ever targeted mosques or women, children and the elderly.
“The Armed Forces appreciate what the people of Sinai have given to the country and their national role as the first line of defence in national security,” he said, reiterating the army's pledge that Sinai was on the threshold of a project for comprehensive development. Simultaneously, he stressed that Egypt, “the symbol of moderation, plurality, openness and tolerance”, remained committed to defeating terrorism and violence.
“Have confidence in your country, have confidence in Egypt,” Colonel Ali said, echoing the words of Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a recent speech. These words were also intended as a message in response to recent remarks by Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi from Qatar intended to incite Egyptian soldiers to insurrection. “The state will deal with such statements with the full weight of the law,” said Colonel Ali.
On Monday morning gunmen attacked a bus on the Arish-Sheikh Zuweid highway close to Wadi Al-Akhdar. Of the nine passengers one civilian was killed and two others were wounded and taken to Arish hospital for treatment.
Commenting on the military spokesman's progress report General Alaa Ezzeddin, former director of the Armed Forces' Centre for Military Studies, said that the figures cited signify “a spectacular success” in the military operations. In his opinion, the losses sustained seemed “normal” given the army's determination to avoid civilian casualties.
Ezzeddin estimates that takfiri elements remaining in Sinai cannot exceed 3,000. Most, he says, have fled or are on the run. However, he cautions that their dispersal is not necessarily a positive development. “On the contrary, it is a potential threat, which is why the Armed Forces most draw up plans to pursue and apprehend these elements.”
To Ezzeddin, the fact that these elements have shifted from field combat to suicide bombing operations is an indicator that their networks are crumbling. Another encouraging indicator is “the appeals for political reconciliation from parties that support those element”, said Ezzeddin referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. “All these developments are working in favour of the state. The Muslim Brotherhood must acknowledge the crimes it has committed, especially now that their influence has been reduced to zero given their loss of any popular support base.”
Hamas officials were quick to respond to the military spokesman's allegations that Hamas was a source of material and logistical support for the terrorists in Sinai. On his Facebook page, beneath the heading “To whom it may concern”, chief of Hamas political bureau Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote, “what rational person would believe that Hamas, which agreed to a truce with the Zionist entity that had been brokered by Egypt, would start a battle with Egypt? What rational person would believe that the people of Gaza would act with hostility towards Egypt, the sole outlet for their livelihood and their contact with the world? Is there a rational person who believes that a hand grenade stamped with the words Qassam Brigades and some clothes resembling the Qassam uniform constitute proof of the smuggling of arms into Sinai? Gaza needs Egypt. It could never export to it anything that might undermine its security.”
Recent press reports from Gaza have revealed that the Hamas government has prohibited mosque preachers from delivering sermons criticising the Egyptian army and government. In addition, Hamas government head Ismail Haniyeh has sought to appease Egypt. There has been a significant shift in tone from a week ago when Hamas officials were claiming that the Egyptian army was preparing to wage a military strike against Gaza in order to uproot terrorist elements connected with their counterparts in Sinai.
Gaza has never been a source of terrorism or extremism,” says Hamas spokesman Ihab Al-Ghoseinn. “It is the bastion of steadfastness and resistance. The [Hamas] government rejects all offences against the security and sovereignty of Egypt, whatever the causes and motives. It regards Egypt's strength and restoration of security as a strength for Palestine and a bolster for its liberation project. Gaza is innocent of all the accusations being levelled against it in the framework of the unjust media campaign of incitement and distortion.”
Said Okasha, head of the Israeli Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly that “weakening Hamas has been made necessary national security exigencies”.
“There are indications that the Hamas government in Gaza has been severely affected by recent developments. It has lost its most important ally. This should compel it to coordinate with the [Egyptian army] and to hand over those responsible for the terrorist operations that have occurred in Sinai from 25 January 2011 to the present.”
Another military expert referred to the “new tactic of targeting Egyptian army points from across the border in Gaza”, which Colonel Ali mentioned in his progress report. This belies Hamas's claims that it is not involved in what is happening in Sinai, the expert said, adding that “when the military operations are over investigative authorities will begin to study evidence of Hamas's responsibility and complicity in crimes that have been perpetrated in Sinai for years” .
With respect to the military spokesman's press conference on Sunday, the source said that it offered a good insight into how the army was handling the fight against terrorist networks in Sinai but that, of course, there were many details that could not be revealed due to national security considerations.”
In a telephone interview with the Weekly Hassan Asfour, former PA minister before the Hamas government assumed control in Gaza, said that Egypt would be well advised to close the tunnels entirely.
“If even one tunnel remains open it will jeopardise the efforts that the Egyptian army has already made. It is believed that some tunnels that are used to smuggle arms are still in operation and are heavily fortified and secured,” he said. On the political equation in Gaza, Asfour believes it will inevitably shift. Celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement last January is one sign the shift is already underway.
“One had the impression that the large turnout on that occasion was more of a mass protest against Hamas than a celebration of the anniversary of Fatah,” he said. Hamas, claims Asfour, is responsible for many activities against Egypt. He pointed to the large conference of jihadist and takfiri factions that was held on the Palestinian side of Rafah three weeks ago. “This could not have taken place without Hamas's approval,” he said, adding that those present were clamouring against the Egyptian army which, in conjunction with recent developments, seems to put paid to these movements' claims that they had been founded for the purpose of confronting Israel.

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