The death of nine civilians in an unidentified missile strike south of Bir al-Abd on Saturday night topped the news coming out of Sinai this week.
The nine civilians, all of whom were from the same family, were returning home from an olive farm when their car was struck by the unidentified shelling.
While Bir al-Abd has largely remained outside the zone of conflict between the Armed Forces and militants over the last two years, the city and surrounding area are increasingly seeing clashes between the two sides.
Saturday’s tragedy came two days after security forces thwarted a suicide attack on the coastal road of the North Sinai capital of Arish.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to be caught in the ongoing conflict between militants and the Armed Forces in the north of the peninsula, with several people injured by stray gunfire in the last week.
Bir al-Abd: a new battleground in the Armed Forces-militant standoff
On Sunday morning, Bir al-Abd residents buried nine members of the same family, who were killed the night before when an unidentified missile hit the pickup truck that was transporting them from the village of Tofaha, south of the city.
Six other people were injured in the unidentified strike, including a baby.
According to local sources who spoke to Mada Masr, the father, mother and their seven children were from the village of Darawish outside of Bir al-Abd, and they worked as day laborers at an olive farm in Tofaha.
Dozens of concerned residents gathered in front of the city’s hospital to check on family members injured in the blast, while others queued to donate blood in response to appeals published on social media.
The missile strike came hours after militants detonated an improvised explosive device near an Armed Forces armored vehicle near the village of Gaal, south of Bir al-Abd.
A military source told Mada Masr that five soldiers were injured in the blast.
Saturday’s events played out against the backdrop of increasing confrontations between the Armed Forces and Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai in Bir al-Abd, an area that has not seen the tense standoffs of other Sinai cities, including Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, in the last two years.
The Bir al-Abd village of Rawda was the site of the deadliest militant attack in Egyptian history in 2017, when militants opened fire on a mosque during Friday prayer and stormed residents’ homes. In total, 305 people were killed in the attack, which was never claimed by any of the militant groups operating in Sinai.
At the end of September, dozens of Province of Sinai militants launched a large-scale, coordinated attack on a military checkpoint positioned at a bridge that connects the two banks of the Salam Canal in the center of Tofaha village.
One civilian and seven soldiers, including an officer, were killed in the attack, while another five soldiers and five civilians were injured.
After the attack in Tofaha, security forces introduced unprecedented measures for the city of Bir al-Abd, including closing roads and entrances to residential areas with sand barriers. Security forces have also built additional fortifications around checkpoints, military battalions and the city’s police station.
These measures have been augmented with continuous shelling by fighter jets and drones in the Bir al-Abd region since the attack. These strikes have targeted a house, a mosque and a poultry farm, according to local sources who spoke to Mada Masr.
However, Province of Sinai militants continue to maintain a foothold in the area.
According to local sources, militants from the group have set up temporary checkpoints in Tofaha over the last two weeks, checking the identification cards of residents and urging the village’s farmers not to cooperate with the Armed Forces and security forces.
Tofaha is home to the largest agricultural industry in Bir al-Abd, with production centered on olive and palm tree orchards that sit alongside poultry farms.
As a result of the deteriorating security situation, residents have hastened to move livestock, sheep and chicken elsewhere, while trying to finish harvesting the season’s crops quickly.
Shelling from unidentified sources has killed 13 civilians and injured 12 others in two incidents in recent months, by Mada Masr’s count. The first took place in May in the village of Joura, which lies south of Sheikh Zuwayed, while the second occurred in June near the Kilo 17 checkpoint west of Arish.
Stray bullets and a suicide attack in Arish
Security forces thwarted a suicide attack on a police checkpoint last Thursday in North Sinai’s capital.
According to a security source, police spotted a person emerging from the palm trees in front of the checkpoint. When the man did not respond to orders to halt, a police officer and a conscript approached him, intending to arrest him, the source says. The man threw an improvised explosive device toward the officers, prompting the security forces at the checkpoint to open fire, immediately killing the man.
The explosive device did not hit the approaching officers, and no police officers were injured in the exchange. A bomb squad was called in to dismantle the explosive vest the man was wearing.
After the attack, the Interior Ministry announced that it thwarted a suicide attack on a police checkpoint in Arish.
The failed suicide attack came almost two weeks after another attack in Arish targeted a military checkpoint south of the city in Mahager, which left three soldiers, including an officer, dead and two others injured. According to a security source who spoke to Mada Masr, military forces at the checkpoint engaged militants in a shootout around noon on September 14, with militants using heavy weaponry and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack.
Outside of direct confrontations between militants and security forces, civilians continue to find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Last Friday, a young man sitting at a cafe in the Masaeed neighborhood of western Arish was injured by stray gunfire. An eyewitness told Mada Masr that a bullet pierced the table where the man was sitting before entering his foot.
The man was taken to Arish General Hospital for treatment.
The young man’s injury is just the latest incident of civilian collateral damage in the conflict between security forces and militants in the North Sinai residential areas of Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Bir al-Abd. In the last few months, a young man and woman were killed and four people were injured by stray bullets, prompting North Sinai residents to launch the #StopStrayBullets social media campaign to call attention to the alarming phenomenon.
An estimated 621 civilians were killed between July 2013 and mid-2017 by stray bullets and shelling from unknown sources, while another 1,247 were injured, according to statistics from the North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate that Mada Masr has obtained.