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Hamas arrests gunmen trying to cross into Sinai

Hamas' security efforts are paying off, stopping suspected terrorists from crossing into Egypt on twice in one week.

The Ministry of Interior and National Security in the Gaza Strip announced this week that it had foiled an attempt by three gunmen to enter Egypt through the southern border of the Gaza Strip on Nov. 13. One of the suspected jihadis was arrested and the two others remain on the run.

The ministry said it thwarted a similar attempt on Nov. 8, explaining, "There was an exchange of fire with three gunmen before the security forces were able to arrest them, seize their weapons and refer them for investigation. Security forces continue to scout the area along the southern border with Egypt” for two other suspects.

The men in both instances are suspected of belonging to small extremist groups that subscribe to Islamic State ideology.

The Nov. 8 incident is seen as the first time in years that Gazan gunmen with ties to IS have tried to enter Egyptian territory. The last known attempt was made Aug. 17, 2017, by two alleged IS militants at the Sinai border. One of the militants blew himself up when a group of Palestinian security forces approached to apprehend them. He died and his companion was injured along with a number of security personnel. 

A Palestinian security official in Gaza told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity the alleged gunmen in the Nov. 8 attempt were Amir al-Najar, Hamza Abu Dalal and Abdel Karim Mosbeh. "There were two other men but they are still missing: Sabri Baroud and Mohammad al-Lahwani from the central Gaza Strip," the official said.

“These individuals uphold extremist ideas. A Mercedes car with weapons and explosive belts belonging to them was confiscated. The security team was able to contain the incident without any casualties. The arrestees are being interrogated and the results will be made public when completed. We have deployed more security forces along the border with Egypt,” the source added. 

The arrests without casualties could indicate that Hamas' security in Gaza had prior information about the gunmen, who were ambushed along the border with Egypt and taken for questioning about the goals of their mission and who was waiting for them on the Egyptian side of the border.

Hamas is tightening the noose around IS-affiliated militants in Gaza, prompting them to try to escape the area. Its security services are making every effort to maintain the status quo in Gaza, where the volatile security situation means Hamas must strengthen its military capabilities within Gaza and on the border and increase security understandings with the Egyptian side.

Mahmoud Mardawi, a member of Hamas’ National Relations Office, told Al-Monitor, “The arrests are part of Hamas' consistent policy and commitment to protecting the Egyptian border from any threat, which would affect us, too. Also, when Egyptians see how much effort is being made to achieve Palestinian and Egyptian security, it will improve relations and confidence between Hamas and Cairo. Those infiltrators seek to sabotage bilateral relations. Egyptian security is monitoring what Hamas is doing to maintain security on the common border.”

On Oct. 7, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that Gaza security forces had arrested four group of militants that were planning attacks against Hamas leaders and security services. 

Wissam Afifa, a political analyst and former editor of Gaza's al-Resalah, told A-Monitor, “We witnessed a qualitative security achievement for Hamas that also served Egyptian interests. In previous years, the issue of infiltrators from Gaza to Egypt almost sabotaged relations between Hamas and the Egyptian government.”

Afifa said, “There are major field arrangements on the Gaza-Sinai border, including surveillance cameras, checkpoints, monitoring sites and the establishment of a buffer zone. Hamas asked Egypt a few months ago to provide it with the necessary logistics to enhance security in this dangerous border area." He added, however, "Some Egyptian political and security parties are not pleased with the development of relations between Hamas and Egypt. These parties are using such incidents to keep the finger of blame pointed at Hamas."

An Egyptian journalist based in Cairo told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Egyptian security is satisfied with Hamas’ maintenance of border security between Gaza and Sinai, as it shows that the movement believes that the infiltrating militants from both sides of the border are a common threat to Gaza and Egypt.”

The incident coincided with a visit to Cairo by Hamas leaders headed by Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas' political bureau, to discuss bilateral relations and Egypt’s role in alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people under the Israeli blockade.

Islam Shahwan, a former Interior Ministry spokesman in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The security understandings between Hamas and Egypt in 2017 provided for extensive security efforts to prevent infiltration by individuals between Gaza and Egypt. They both agreed on a state of high alert on the common border, and it's had positive ramifications on the relations between Gaza and Cairo.”

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