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Sinai Diary: ‘There were so many dead’

Families close to the border with Gaza flee in the face of militant attacks on Egyptian army posts and airstrikes on civilian areas
A young resident in Sinai gets care after an attack last week

It has been a long week for Egypt’s Sinai residents, many of whom have fled as the situation in the area, following a high-profile attack earlier this month, continues to degenerate.

Militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group fired three Grad rockets last week into the coastal Israeli city of Eshkol, claiming it was in "retaliation" against alleged Israeli airstrikes on the Sinai.

The group claimed in a statement that the alleged Israeli strikes were in support of the Egyptian military, following a surprise attack on 1 July by the militants against army posts in Sinai.  

Several news reports following the 1 July Sinai attack put the death toll among Egyptian troops at 70. In the following days, Egyptian officials, who said 21 soldiers had died, announced they were introducing anti-terrorism legislation that could see journalists jailed for a minimum of two years for reporting information that contradicted official statements.

A view of a damaged building in Egypt's Sinai, July 2015

IS claimed that airstrikes, carried out by an Israeli fighter and aided by a drone, hit the areas of al-Hamayda and al-Kenya inside the Northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwaid, close to the border with Gaza. 

A spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, told MEE on Sunday that his ministry rejects IS's claim. "This is totally denied," said spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

According to an Israeli radio report on 1 July, Israel had reinforced its troops on the border with Sinai and sent paratroopers to strengthen its military presence in the area, closing one military route. The Israeli army also reportedly granted an Egyptian request to reinforce its troops in the peninsula, hours after the attack.

On the same day, in what some have seen as an attempt to rebuff the Egyptian government’s downplaying of the attack, IS published pictures purportedly showing militant attacks targeting Abu al-Rifai and al-Sidra army posts in Sheikh Zuwaid. Included in the images were several damaged tanks, one hit Apache helicopter and several dead Egyptian soldiers.

Homes targeted, no more ambulances

Despite the increasingly critical circumstances for locals, their accounts of the past 10 days as the Egyptian military has stepped up its campaign against militants, have been sparse, a result of several factors, including restrictions on journalists in Sinai and electricity outages following airstrikes. MEE reached several residents by phone who detailed what they have witnessed.

Locals told MEE that on 3 July heavy airstrikes over the town of Sheikh Zuwaid targeted the home of a local resident, Sufyan Qassam al-Rayshat, resulting in the death of his 18-year-old daughter, Alaa. Rayshat, his wife, and two other daughters, Haneen and Shahd, were injured after three airstrikes hit their home in south Rafah.

An eyewitness, Sulaiman Ibrahim from Abu Tawil, a village in Sheikh Zuwaid, said: “Two planes coming from Israel’s direction in the north were circling above us, while another plane targeted Rayshat’s home in the nearby Abu Zaraa region.”

Mohamed Abu Mostafa, another eyewitness said: “We called for an ambulance more than 10 times, but there was no reply. Finally, someone at the hospital picked up and said there were no ambulances available in the whole of Sheikh Zuwaid since the terrorists had captured them,” said Abu Mostafa.

“There were so many dead, and we couldn’t help them without ambulances,” he added.

A view of the inside of Abu Tawil mosque in Egypt's Sinai, July 2015

According to Um Mahmoud from Abu Tawila: “When we heard the airstrikes over Sufyan’s house, we started running towards the military posts.

“When we got there, they [the soldiers] told us to return to our homes although the airstrikes were pouring down on us like rain. The airstrikes randomly hit the Abu Tawila school, mosque and market area.”

The airstrikes also hit the home of Jalal Naser Abu Farih in the Shibaniya area of South Rafah, resulting in his death of his wife and two children.

“The airplanes intentionally targeted the house without warning,” said eyewitness Abu Mohamed al-Mani’ie.

“We tried to pull the victims out of their home and towards the military posts in attempt to save their lives, but because of the curfew that has been imposed on the area and due to the lack of ambulances and emergency services, it was too late,” explained Mani’ie.

The airstrikes reportedly also resulted in the death of five-year-old Mohamed Jihad Ahmed Naser, while his brother was injured after their home in Shibaniya was also targeted.

On 4 July, while a group of electricians were on their way to Abu Rifa’i neighbourhood in Sheikh Zuwaid, a landmine went off near their bus, resulting in the death of Juma Uda Ilwan, 50, and 40-year-old Wael Juma Salam. A third man, 33-year-old Raed Sulayman, was completely disfigured in the attack.

Abu Tawil mosque in Egypt's Sinai, July 2015

Meanwhile, militants continued their operations against the Egyptian security and military forces in Sinai, many particularly focused on the homes of police officers.

On 5 July, militants bombed the home of police officer Mohamed Anas in al-Samran neighbourhood in the centre of Arish. His home was completely destroyed, but no injuries were reported. On the same day, blasts hit two homes belonging to policemen - one in al-Safa and the other in the al-Zohour neighbourhood west of Arish.

According to tribal sources in the region, a group of militants bombed a bus belonging to the security forces in Arish on Thursday morning as it neared a military post west of Arish. The blast resulted in the death of two and injured 14 others.

Militants linked to the IS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai group also killed a soldier in Abu Tawil on Thursday afternoon.

In a separate incident, a home in Abu Araj, a village located in the south of Sheikh Zuwaid was targeted by military strikes resulting in the death of seven-year-old Omar Yusuf Muslim, while his two parents and brother suffered serious injuries.

A view of a damaged building in Egypt's Sinai, July 2015

Water, electricity outages

Residents in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid, as well as their surrounding villages, went for five consecutive summer days without electricity or running water after airstrikes targeting military posts on the highway between Arish and Rafah hit an electricity tower near al-Faytat, south west of Sheikh Zuwaid.

Electricity and running water reportedly returned on 9 July, only after many families left their homes in both towns as a result of the dire situation and out of fear of being caught up in the violence.

Meanwhile, six decaying bodies were found on Friday morning near the military battalion 101 complex east of Arish, tribal sources told MEE. The complex is an important military headquarters in Sinai.

The sources believe that the bodies were those of detainees who had been shot and killed, an incident they claim would not be the first of its kind in Sinai. Eleven other decaying corpses of previously detained locals were found in the area, they said.

As airstrikes and violence in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid continue to flare, tens of families have left their homes in the towns and surrounding villages. While many have moved towards the centre of Arish and Bir al-Abd, others families have left North Sinai and headed towards the western city of Ismailia.  

MEE's Arwa Ibrahim, Dania Akkad and Mamoon Alabbasi contributed to this piece.