The attack on the Batal 14 checkpoint in the Arish village of al-Seel, which left at least 10 police personnel dead, tops the news emerging out of North Sinai this week. Following the attack, the Interior Ministry has issued a flurry of statements detailing the state’s response, which has left 26 alleged militants dead.
However, outside of the attack, there have also been developments on several other fronts: The number of civilians killed after an unidentified missile struck a residential building on June 2 in Jourra, south of Sheikh Zuwayed, has inched higher, after one of those who had sustained critical injuries died in the hospital. The Union of Sinai Tribes also announced that it had killed a former Province of Sinai leader on the same day as the Joura attack. In Arish, the fuel crisis caused by shorter operational hours during Ramadan has been slightly alleviated after the governor announced that the only gas station in the city would stay open longer.
At dawn on June 5, militants launched an assault on three checkpoints overlooking the western edge of Arish’s ring road.
While Batal 14, a checkpoint operated by Central Security Forces (under the authority of the Interior Ministry) was the main target of the attack, militants also attacked Batal 13 and Batal 15 (both of which are under the control of the Armed Forces) in an attempt to isolate the Interior Ministry’s checkpoint. The militants also targeted reinforcements who were sent to the area after the attack.
Forces stationed at Batal 14 are involved in protecting the construction of new checkpoints along the Arish ring road that coincide with the new wall being built around the city. The construction of the wall began in 2018, after the attempted assasination of the former interior and defense ministers. Militants have repeatedly targeted civilian contractors working with the military to construct the wall.
According to a security source who spoke to Mada Masr on the day of the attack, at least 10 police personnel, including two officers, were killed in the assault on Batal 14. Ambulances transferred the bodies of eight police officers and many injured to a hospital, the source added.
Residents spotted fighter jets above Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed in the hours after the attack and heard occasional explosions. The city’s coastal road was also closed, local sources told Mada Masr.
The Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack through its media arm, the Amaq News Agency, later on the same day. The outlet reported that the group’s fighters attacked three security bases in Arish, confiscated weapons and ammunition, and blew up security vehicles.
On Friday, Amaq also published photographs of the Batal 14 attack, depicting about 22 armed men carrying various automatic weapons, as well as an armed man carrying a Strela 2 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft gun.
The Union of Sinai Tribes, which consists of young men from North Sinai tribes, the most prominent of which is the Tarabeen tribe, and has been cooperating with Egypt’s security apparatus in its counterterrorism efforts, published photos of the aftermath of the checkpoint attack on its Facebook page. The images show a scorched Temsah armored personnel carrier, which, according to sources who spoke to Mada Masr at the time, was one of the vehicles seized by militants after the checkpoint attack.
Following the attack, the Interior Ministry issued a series of statements detailing a counteroffensive that has left 26 alleged militants dead.
In the first statement, the ministry announced that eight police officers died, adding that security forces had killed 14 militants allegedly involved in the attack. The militants were in possession of 14 automatic rifles, three IEDs, and two explosive belts, the statement added.
The second statement came on Friday, providing information on a firefight inside an olive grove in the Obour neighborhood southeast of Arish 15 kilometers from Sabeel, which left an additional eight militants dead. The alleged militants were said to have five automatic rifles, an IED, and two explosive belts.
Obour is home to the headquarters of Egypt’s Armed Forces Battalion 101, the North Sinai Security Directorate, the Military Intelligence, the National Security agency, and a large number of checkpoints surround the area.
And in the final statement issued on Saturday, the ministry stated that four people allegedly involved in the attack had been killed in a raid on a house in the city’s Masaeed neighborhood. Security forces found three automatic rifles and an explosive belt in the raid, according to the statement.
The Batal checkpoints are near the Sabeel village along the southwestern edge of the Arish ring road. Sabeel is one of the most dangerous areas of Arish, as Province of Sinai militants have kidnapped civilians and ambushed trucks carrying equipment for companies that work with the Armed Forces there. The militant group has also distributed fliers in the area threatening civilians who “cooperate” with the military.
Sabeel is also located near a key security hub overlooking the coastal road and sits between two heavily fortified military sites, known as the “Total” base to the east, and the “Harbyia” or “Triangle” base to the west..
The desert side of this area, where all farms were removed after the construction of the Arish airport began, was incorporated into the security zone after the attempted assassination of the defense minister and interior minister at the Arish airport in December 2017.
In the leadup to the June 5 assault on the checkpoint, there had been several red flags raised by security personnel and workers in the area.
A security source tells Mada Masr that security forces stationed near the Balal 14 checkpoint drove masked militants away with gunfire after spotting them photographing troop positions four days before the attack.
On Tuesday, one day before the assault on Batal 14, three militants photographed and then opened fire on the Harbiya military base, which sits opposite of the steam-electric power station.
The account provided by the security source was confirmed by workers at the power station, who added that worker dormitories also came under fire on Tuesday.
On Thursday, hours after the attack, joint units of the Armed Forces and police cordoned off the Edary district in Masaeed, which is close to the Batal 14 checkpoint, and launched an extensive search operation.
This past Friday, news websites published reports that security forces in North Sinai had foiled an attempt by militants to ambush forces in the Sabeel area.
Local sources in Arish confirmed hearing explosions, gunshots, and fighter jets at around 2 am Friday morning, but the sources say the sounds of an apparent firefight were brief.
However, security sources told Mada Masr that there have not been new militant attacks on checkpoints in North Sinai, and that the sound of explosions and gunshots were part of a routine perimeter sweep.
Local news websites reported on funerals held for policemen killed in the Batal 14 checkpoint.
Local outlets also reported funerals for two Armed Forces conscripts: Abanoub Nageh Marzouk from Assiut, and Khalil Eid Youssef from Berhira.
The Armed Forces have not issued a statement detailing any casualties from their ranks in the assault on the three checkpoints, two of which were operated by Armed Forces troops.
One of the nine injured people transferred to Arish General Hospital after the missile attack on a residence in Joura — a village in southern Sheikh Zuwayed — died in the hospital on June 8, according to hospital sources. Another six patients had been released on June 2. The death toll from the attack now stands at five civilians.
Two missiles were fired at a residence in Joura on May 27, immediately killing four people. Three of them were from the Khalafat clan, which belongs to the Sawarka tribe, a prominent North Sinai tribe that announced in May 2017 that it would work alongside the Armed Forces to fight militants. The fourth was a member of the Qawasmeh family of the Rishat tribe. Twelve other village residents were also injured.
On June 2, the Union of Sinai Tribes announced the killing of Selim Salem Abu Qarei, whom the union said was the former head of the militant group Province of Sinai’s Islamic police authority, Al-Hesba, which is based in the border city of Rafah. The union also stated that Abu Qarei was involved in the killing of over 20 tribesmen accused by the militant group of collaborating with the Armed Forces.
The union did not specify if Abu Qarei was killed by the Armed Forces, the Egyptian police, or armed groups affiliated with the union. No official statements have been released by either the Armed Forces or the Ministry of Interior regarding the alleged incident.
The Province of Sinai, which declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, has not claimed responsibility for the killings of the 20 members of the union mentioned in the June 2 statement.
The Union of Sinai Tribes also posted a video on Sunday entitled “The Pact and the Promise,” which showed footage of armed fighters affiliated with the union riding on the backs of pickup trucks holding machine guns. The video also includes images of cars and huts reportedly belonging to “terrorist elements” set on fire, as well as blindfolded men that the union claims are terrorists it has apprehended.
Toward the end of the video, a list of 415 names appears under the heading “Sinai martyrs in the war on terror.” The list includes names of men, women, children and union-affiliated fighters whose deaths have been previously publicly announced.
On May 21, the Union of Sinai Tribes announced the death of Youssef Gomaa al-Haqqi from the Tarabeen tribe in a militant ambush. According to the post, the ambush was carried out by “takfiri groups at iftar time” in al-Barth, a village southwest of Rafah.
In Arish, operating hours have been extended for the city’s only gas station — the station will now operate from 6 am to 12 am daily.
Although the decision, which was implemented last Wednesday, has shortened the amount of time vehicles must spend at the gas station waiting to refuel, residents say that the crisis is not quite over. Khaled Mahmoud, a taxi driver who spoke to Mada Masr, said that even though wait time has been cut from seven to three hours daily, the organization of the lines at the station remains chaotic.
On another front, North Sinai governor Mohamed Abdel Fadeel Shousha announced on Saturday that, following the Eid al-Fitr holiday, fishermen will be allowed to resume using buoys for float fishing.
Fishing off the coast of North Sinai had been banned since the launch of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ widescale counter-terrorism operation, Operation Sinai 2018, in February of that year. The only exception to the ban was Lake Bardawil, in which fishing was permitted from May through December.
The decision to allow float fishing comes a few months after security bodies had already given unofficial permission for fishermen to use the technique within a one-kilometer radius along the shore.
However, the decision has been met with a substantial degree of anger from the fishing community in Arish. Unlike fishermen located in Bir al-Abd — who mainly fish in Lake Bardawil — fishermen from Arish were strongly affected by the ban as fishing was their primary source of income.
The new decision is useless, according to Arish fisherman Youssef Mohamed, who says that most fishermen who use buoy gear have other sources of income and do not take make a living primarily from fishing. Moreover, the yield from float fishing is much less than fishing on motorboats, he says, especially given that the latter requires paddling.
Mohamed insists that the real problem is that their fishing boats continue to be held inside the port. Those boats are the primary source of income for almost 2,000 fishermen, he explains. Meanwhile, fishing boats from Damietta and Port Said operate on the coast of Arish daily — without being stopped by border guards, he alleges.
On the morning of May 21, the entire city of Arish experienced a five-hour power outage after the transmission lines that supply power to the steam-electric power plant went down.
A source inside the North Sinai electricity directorate told Mada Masr that one of the transmission lines that sources electricity from the North Sinai grid to feed the steam electric power plant, followed by another such line that runs through the militant-heavy western edge of Arish, shutting down the steam electric plant’s electricity-generating units. Maintenance crews initially failed to fix the downed lines.
And according to the source, the natural gas power plant in Arish, which was brought in to serve as backup to power the steam-electric power plant’s generators after the weeklong blackout of September 2018 when residents resorted to kerosene lanterns, was insufficient to restore the steam plant’s operations. The natural gas power plant had also stopped working then due to technical problems.
As a result, the cities of Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed were plunged into darkness.
But the source confirmed that the maintenance team eventually fixed the transmission lines and reconnected them to the steam electric power plant, avoiding a longer blackout.
Sheikh Zuwayed has been facing major intermittent electricity cuts since the beginning of May due to repeated attacks by militants on the power infrastructure.
As security forces relaxed their enforcement of curfew hours, allowing residents to be on the streets after 1 am (which was the curfew during Ramadan), Arish’s main markets and shops witnessed a slight boom before the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
But Mohamed Badawy, an owner of a clothing store on 26th of July Street in downtown Arish, tells Mada Masr that, despite the increased crowdedness of the downtown area, purchases remain limited this season. In his view, one reason for this is that Operation Sinai was accompanied by a substantial increase in food prices, as well as the disappearance of some food items, which continues to affect the way families budget for non-essential expenses.
“People can wear anything, but they can’t not eat,” Badawy says.
He also attributes the decline in purchases to a general increase in the prices of all commodities, including clothes, which is partially the result of increased shipping costs on goods entering Arish and long delays in bureaucratic processing.
Badawy also points out that families have begun shopping from overstock outlets and secondhand stores, where prices are relatively cheaper.