By Ismail Iskandarani
On Saturday morning, the Egyptian army took control of the central telecom building in al-Arish and cut off all landlines, mobile phones, and Internet communications in the governorate of North Sinai.
The telecom outage lasted nearly 10 hours, following which the residents of the governorate learned that the army had initiated a large-scale military operation in the border region, but could not obtain any further details. When communications were restored in the evening, a flood of phone calls ensued, complaining about the aftermath of the military operation.
A spokesperson for the Egyptian army took to Facebook to announce the results of the first day of the military campaign, writing that 107 homes were burned down along with a number of vehicles used by the terrorists in their operations. But the residents, while agreeing on some of these details, had a different version of events.
The operation lasted three days. During the communication blackout, tanks and heavy hardware were moved in under cover from Apache combat helicopters, while no media or relief personnel were allowed to enter the area of operations.
Al-Akhbar only learned that the operations had ceased once it arrived in Sheikh Zoweid on Tuesday morning, September 10. Communications had returned, and the residents had not seen or heard the choppers that day. In a quick tour to examine the effects of the military campaign on the villages of al-Zuhair and al-Mokataa, two of several villages affected by the fighting, the extent of the devastation inflicted on civilian homes and vehicles soon became clear.
Al-Akhbar learned from its field guide that Hajj Salem Abu Draa was killed. Salem is a cousin of Sinai journalist Ahmad Abu Draa, who is being detained by the military. He was killed as he left the mosque following the dawn prayer, and his children could not reach his body until later that afternoon. We also learned that Umm Sulman Abu Draa, an elderly woman, was killed after a bullet pierced a wall in her home and settled in her chest.
In al-Mokataa, the Abu Munir mosque was turned to rubble after being hit by missiles, most likely from an Egyptian army Apache. Some locals explained why the mosque would be targeted, saying it was a meeting point for some militant groups. But no one could say for sure whether any militants had actually been holed up in the mosque during the operations.
Dozens of residents gave their testimonies to Al-Akhbar about the indiscriminate collective punishment, the attacks on bystanders and civilians inside homes, and the burning of civilian cars for no apparent reason. One of the residents claimed the army stopped and searched him before sending him away and burning his car.
Not far from the charred remains of the car, a number of adjacent houses met a similar fate. Residents were forcibly evicted and their homes were searched. When the army did not find any contraband inside, they used cooking gas bottles to burn furniture and appliances, and also burned any cars parked in their yards. A taxi driver whose car was burned said he begged the army to arrest him and leave the car to his children to be able to make a living and finish payments on the car, but that the army burned it anyway, as he watched.
Disaster also stuck the extremely impoverished residents of the area’s shanties. People were driven out before their shelters were set on fire although no contraband was found inside. Even the owners of expensive homes were not spared from aerial bombardment, destruction of property, and looting, despite the improbability that their lavish lifestyles were linked to radical Islamists.
According to consistent eyewitness accounts in the two villages, homes were looted of clothes, food, and even women’s jewelry. Olive trees were uprooted and cattle were slain. The army uprooted large areas of olive groves south of al-Arish, supposedly to better expose the area and secure it against infiltration. But these measures have resulted in losses to the tunes of millions of Egyptian pounds, with many families losing their only source of livelihood.
Impact on the Armed Groups
Official army statements claimed that the military operations succeeded in eliminating dens of terrorism and criminal hideouts. However, these claims were shattered on Wednesday morning, when the military intelligence building in Rafah was destroyed in a double suicide attack. On Thursday, a takfiri group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility for the attack.
The group’s statement helped clarify the confusion that prevailed over whether Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a Salafi jihadi group, was otherwise responsible for the Rafah bombing, as the latter had issued another statement on Wednesday announcing figures on the army’s casualties during the three-day operation.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’ statement was enclosed with a picture of a military Land Cruiser that the group claimed it had destroyed, in addition to a Hummer and three armored vehicles using explosive devices. The statement also confirmed that eight soldiers were killed, including six from Special Forces.
Accusing the Egyptian army of treason and collaboration with Israel is nothing new in the statements of Salafi jihadi groups in Sinai. What is new, however, is that the latest statement described the Egyptian military as “the infidel army.” The statement also boasted that the large-scale military campaign claimed the life of only one of the group’s members, something that a resident of al-Mokataa commented on by saying, “They destroyed our homes, burned our cars, and left us with the members of the [militant] groups sticking out their tongues and telling us they were left unharmed.”
The villages in the operation zone south of Sheikh Zoweid are at least 15 km away from the tunnels northeast of Rafah, which means that the recent bombing and burning of homes has nothing to do with these tunnels and the smuggling whatsoever.
Egyptian security forces confirmed that on Sunday, September 15, army attack helicopters bombed positions supposedly belonging to militant Islamists in villages south of Sheikh Zoweid. The sources added that the army started a new military operation against militant outposts in Sinai.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.