Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip have been maintaining close ties with operatives of Wilayat Sinai, the radical jihadist group identified with ISIS (Islamic State), whose warriors are behind the massive attack on Egyptian defense forces in the Sinai on Wednesday, Israeli defense sources said.
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Islamist militants launched on Wednesday a wide-scale, coordinated assault on several military checkpoints in the northern Sinai, in which reports put the death toll as high as 117, with conflicting reports about which side suffered the brunt of the casualties. It was the largest attack yet in the insurgency-riddled province. The Israeli army has raised the alert level in the area for fear of terror attacks on the Egypt-Israel border.
Sources told Haaretz that the ties between Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai) and Hamas’ military wing are the main reason for Egypt’s anger at Hamas. This latest attack could further deteriorate relations between Hamas leaders in Gaza and the Egyptian government, which blames Hamas for assisting ISIS, the sources said.
The Israel Defense Forces closed the border crossings with Egypt in the wake of Wednesday’s events due to concerns that jihadists might storm them with an Egyptian armored personnel carrier they had commandeered in the fighting. The IDF also closed the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip.
According to an IDF Southern Command officer, the Israeli military has no intention of bolstering forces in the area. The IDF is currently focused on collecting intelligence on the events unfolding in Sinai. Still, the IDF has raised the alert level.
Hamas’ military wing and Wilayat Sinai are maintaining their ties despite objections from Hamas’ political leadership, and in the face of repeated clashes between Hamas’ government and the jihadist groups, some of them identified with ISIS. On several occasions, Gazan authorities have arrested jihadist activists who launched rockets into Israel.
According to Egyptian and Israeli sources, Hamas is treating wounded militants from the Sinai jihadist groups in Gazan hospitals. These groups allow Hamas to stockpile weapons in Sinai and sometimes they help Hamas’ smuggling efforts through tunnels into Gaza.
In recent weeks Egypt has alleviated the closure on the Gaza Strip somewhat, and briefly opened the Rafah checkpoint, at the request of Saudi Arabia. This was intended to reduce tension between Cairo and Hamas’ leadership. However, Wednesday’s coordinated terror attack is expected to ratchet up the tension between them again, in light of Egypt’s claim that Hamas is helping the Islamic groups in Sinai.
Egypt’s general command for the armed forces said the army had killed at least 100 militants in northern Sinai, after the militants attacked army checkpoints in the region.
The statement, which was aired on state television, said 17 soldiers, including four officers, were also killed. Thirteen soldiers were also wounded. The general command said it will not stop until Sinai is free of all “terrorist concentrations.”
The official statement, however, contradicts reports citing unnamed Egyptian security officials that more than 64 troops had been killed while fighting militants in the northern Sinai in what appeared to be the deadliest battle on the peninsula since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The army said five checkpoints in Sinai were attacked by about 70 militants, and that soldiers had destroyed three landcruisers fitted with anti-aircraft guns. Security sources said the militants had planned to lay siege to the town of Sheikh Zuweid, where most of the fighting was concentrated, by hitting all army checkpoints simultaneously. “But we have dealt with them and broken the siege on Sheikh Zuweid,” a source said.
Sinai-based militants have stepped up attacks on Egyptian security forces since the 2013 military ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.