The Egyptian military said Thursday it killed 123 Islamic State gunmen over the past two days, 100 of which were killed on Wednesday during the the biggest battle the Sinai Peninsula has seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
According to Egyptian military officials, among the dead were high-ranking members of the Sinai branch, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
The officials claimed that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis sought to implement a plan known as “Stronghold breaking” to take over the city of Sheikh Zuweid. In addition, the ISIS-affiliated group tried to cut off Egyptian Rafah from al-Arish, but the Egyptian army said it was able to foil their attempt and gain full control of the area.
The day’s fighting included F-16 planes and Apache helicopters, and at its end the Egyptian military announced that it would not stop its activities until it completely rooted out all terror concentrations in the peninsula. On Thursday, the Egyptian army’s spokesman declared that “the situation in northern Sinai is now under complete control.” However, security sources and witnesses said that aerial attacks on armed targets have been renewed.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the combined assault on Wednesday, saying it attacked 15 targets of the Egyptian security forces, and carried out three suicide bombings.
“This incident is a turning point,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.
Israel remains on high alert on the border on Thursday, but the Kerem Shalom crossing has been reopened. During the day 600 trucks are expected to pass through the crossing.
The amount of Egyptian soldiers killed remains unclear. Security sources said Wednesday that 64 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 55 wounded. By contrast, an Egyptian TV report claimed that “only” 17 soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded.
Israeli security sources said that Hamas’ military wing is assisting the jihadists in northern Sinai, against the wishes of the organization’s political wing, which opposes this assistance as it aims to move closer to Cairo. According to sources, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades have been helping the jihadists in Sinai for a long time, and in recent days included treatment to wounded jihadists, alongside efforts to transport weapons and money to Sinai.
The Egyptian army has earned the scorn of the al-Qassam Brigades by destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels from the Egyptian Rafah to Gaza’s Rafah, as well as flattening dozens of homes in Egyptian Rafah in order to create a one-kilometer buffer zone along the Gaza-Sinai border.
Suleiman al-Sayed, a 49-year-old Sheikh Zuweid resident, told Reuters that he was not allowed to leave his home while clashes were ongoing. He said he had glimpsed “five Land Cruisers with masked gunmen waving black flags.”
Photos published afterwards apparently show ISIS fighters were disguised as soldiers and wore Egyptian military uniforms.
“This specific attack is by far the worst we’ve ever seen,” security expert Daniel Nisman told the New York Times. “It’s not a hit-and-run — this is what they used in places like Syria and Iraq to actually capture and hold territory.” The attempt failed, but Nisman said the attack exposed the Egyptian army’s weaknesses in northern Sinai, where it does not have the support of the local population.
The terrorist attack in northern Sinai occurred a few days after the assassination of Egypt’s public prosecutor. While the Egyptian army was fighting in Sinai, Egyptian security forces killed nine militants, including a Muslim Brotherhood jurist, in a suburb west of Cairo. State authorities said that the operation was carried out after information was received that the group it attacked was a cell planning a terrorist attack.
The Muslim Brotherhood announced that its leaders killed in a Cairo apartment were murdered “in cold blood”, and called for a rebellion against President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, calling him a “butcher.”
“Go out and rebel, protect your country, yourselves and your children, prosecute Egypt again and destroy its fortresses of repression,” the Hamas movement stated.
The Arab League was expected to convene a special meeting on Thursday following the terrorist attacks in Sinai, at Egypt’s request.