RAFAH - Those living in Rafah have military forces responsible for securing the border at their doorsteps. While this should provide extra protection for the locals, on Sunday, it was the locals who struggled to save the soldiers undergoing a brutal attack.
The failure to prevent an attack on a military checkpoint, carried out by unknown militants, and the slow response of both forces on the ground and officials stand as a staggering demonstration of the ongoing security vacuum in Sinai, Egypt’s strategic eastern gate.
While local media and politicians alike are busy mourning the deceased soldiers, and sounding alarms about the rise of terrorism in the Sinai, there is little attention to the broader failure of the state on the peninsula, locals say.
As they were getting ready to break their Ramadan fast, leaving the watchtower vacant, soldiers at a military checkpoint situated two miles away from the Karam Abu Salem border crossing were attacked by unknown militants who killed 16 soldiers and injured seven others.
Witnesses said the attackers came in three cars, shooting the soldiers and stealing a military tank. The tank headed toward the Israeli border and was destroyed by Israeli aircraft seconds after crossing into its territory.
Those residing near the attack site who rushed to the scene to help the injured soldiers said they had to act on their own, and faced a lack of cooperation from military forces stationed at checkpoints set up every few miles inside Rafah.
Bassam Ouda, who was among the locals who transported the bodies to Rafah Hospital in their personal cars, said the military forces in nearby checkpoints refused to help them.
“We told the officers to come secure us while we got the injured soldiers. They refused, saying that they hadn’t received such orders and couldn’t desert their posts,” Ouda said.
Witnesses said ambulances arrived after locals had already transported most of the bodies and the injured soldiers to Rafah Hospital, and that military forces arrived at the site after the attack had finished and the perpetrators had escaped.
Mohamed al-Moattar, a shop owner who lives near the site, said that members of different tribes were still chasing the attackers on the loose. He said this has always been Sinai’s version of law enforcement, which lacks any reliance on the police.
Slow action on the ground was mirrored by similarly slow reactions on the official level. President Mohamed Morsi only issued standard statements following the attack and failed to show up to the soldiers’ military funeral on Tuesday.
A failing state
Many who witnessed the attack are saddened by the difference between the slow reaction on the Egyptian side and the swift response on the Israeli side, especially with reports in the Israeli paper Haaretz that Israeli officials had warned the Egyptian government of possible attacks. There are reports that Israel evacuated its citizens from the area two days in advance.
Saleh Abu Lefeita, a car dealer and a Rafah community leader, said the government had evacuated some residents on the border 20 days prior to the attack.
Many locals complained this is not the first time military forces have failed to take the necessary action. Locals said the many Rafah checkpoints are only for show, as extremist groups train out in the open and goods smuggled into Gaza through illegal tunnels pass right through the checkpoints.
Last month, two soldiers were shot at another Rafah checkpoint, and in August last year, Israeli forces killed five Egyptian security officers on the border, triggering a temporary diplomatic crisis. In another demonstration of loose security in Sinai, the pipelines delivering gas to Israel have been bombed 15 times in the last year and a half.
Sunday’s attack escalated security fears for Sinai residents. Sawsan al-Ayesh, who lives next to the attack site, left her home and took her children to her mother’s. When the attackers threw what seems to have been a smoke bomb, Ayesh thought her house was going to be blown up with her and her children in it.
“We used to feel safe, with the military around us. Now we’re scared and we can’t go back home. We’re scared that we’ll get blamed for this while we are in the line of fire. These soldiers are family for us,” she said.
The incident has caused renewed calls for the modification of the three-decades-old peace treaty with Israel, which allows Egypt only a limited number of soldiers on the border, with meager arms.
Pillars of security
Locals vehemently denied early reports that the operation was a joint effort between Palestinian factions and Sinai Bedouins, saying that while Bedouins could have been hired by the perpetrators to help them, they couldn’t have been involved in planning the attack.
“People here may get involved in individual acts of violence related to revenge, but this kind of organized operation doesn't happen in this area,” Abu Lefeita said.
The incident has also triggered anti-Palestinian sentiment among Bedouins in Sinai who blame Palestinian factions.
Many witnesses said they recognized the perpetrators’ Palestinian dialect and that they were repeating jihadist chants as they carried out the operation.
Morsi has been criticized for opening up the Rafah crossing, a decision that was reversed following the attack.
Saeed Hamad, an elderly Bedouin whose house is across from the attacked site, cried as he recounted how the locals were unable to come to the rescue of the soldiers after they were shot.
“These are our children that died. This is an Israeli plot, we would be fools to think otherwise,” said Hammad.