Four masked men clad in black were arrested while attempting to sneak by the Rafah border crossing in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Friday, in a failed attempt to cross illegally into the Gaza strip, reported the Egypt Independent. The identities of the four men have not yet been revealed by security forces to the press.
Several small-scale hit-and-run attacks across north Sinai have taken place over the past two days, as security forces continue their crackdown on militants and illegal tunnels in the region. On Thursday, Bedouin leaders in Sheikh Zuwaid met with the Defense Minister, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and army officials to discuss the water crisis gripping the region.
Khalid Arafat, a Bedouin activist, confirmed the meeting. According to Arafat, thugs were in control of a water treatment facility in Arish, preventing employees from going to work. On Thursday, he said, the army arrested the thugs and vowed to build a desalinization plant in Arish and another three in Rafah to combat water shortages.
On Friday, small skirmishes at checkpoints in Sheikh Zuwaid and Arish also took place, with no injuries or deaths reported. Both in Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid, eyewitnesses reported gunfire exchange between armed men in a vehicle and security forces before the attackers made their escape.Arafat says such hit and run attacks are very common in the region.
The closing of tunnels used by people in Sinai and Gaza to smuggle cars, weapons, people and other goods was also met with scepticism by Arafat, who believes not enough is being done to halt the use of tunnels. “I don’t feel like the tunnels are being closed, because the vehicles used for smuggling contraband through the tunnels are still making their usual trips,” Arafat said.
As part of the Sinai offensive, security forces have been shutting down the smugglers’ tunnels connecting Gaza and the Sinai. According to the Egypt Independent, more than 25 tunnels have been destroyed between the Karam Abu Salem crossing and the Rafah border crossing since workers began demolishing tunnels in that area. Unnamed security sources cited by AFP claim the total number of tunnels destroyed since the beginning of the operation earlier this month to be 120. In 2010, a report published by the US Congressional Research Service estimated that there were over 1,000 tunnels in operation, employing as many as 7,000 people on both sides.
AFP reported that at least 12 tunnels from Egypt’s side have been blocked in the past two days. The army has so far refrained from using explosives or water to fill the tunnels, mainly due to the tunnels being located in residential districts and underneath homes. Security officials cited by AFP said that seven homes situated atop tunnel entrances over the past two days have been levelled, while two other tunnels used to smuggle cars into Gaza had also been sealed.
According to the state-run MENA news agency, Egyptian security forces are searching for 120 wanted militants in the region. Roughly 1,600 extremists, including foreign extremists, are believed to have taken refuge in the Sinai.