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Conflict Erupts in Sinai Peninsula on Border Between Egypt and Gaza

Dune Shooting Position
A member of the Egyptian security forces takes position on a sand dune during an operation in a northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

Sinai, the dusty, dangerous region connecting the land and fates of Israel and Egypt, has once again erupted in tit-for-tat bloodshed.

This morning, Egyptian planes launched an air attack on Islamic militants in the peninsula, while ground forces raided villages as part of the crackdown. The assault came as retaliation for attacks by the militants on Sunday that killed 16 Egyptian border guards as they broke their Ramadan fast. After the militants killed the Egyptian soldiers, they stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel to attempt a second attack, where they were killed. It was the bloodiest attack on security forces in Sinai since 1979.

Today’s battle occurred just six miles from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

Sunday’s attacks prompted officials on both sides of the border to seal the smuggling tunnels that honeycomb the earth beneath the border between Egypt and Gaza, to prevent insurgents from sneaking into or out of the territory.

A Reuters reporter in the border town of Rafah said heavy equipment was brought to the Egyptian side of the tunnels, which are used to smuggle people to and from Gaza as well as food and fuel that are a lifeline for the small territory’s population.

Relatives scream and cry while mourning one of the 16 soldiers killed during an attack on a border crossing post in Northern Sinai, during their funeral on August 7, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages)

Newly-elected president Mohammed Morsi declared three days of mourning for the soldiers killed in Sunday’s attack and visited the scene on Tuesday near the border with Israel.

Meanwhile, mourners attended the funerals for the slain soldiers at the main military mosque in Cairo and jostled to get close to the flag-draped coffins. While many prayed in the midday sun, others angry at the Morsi government for failing to prevent the attacks, rushed at Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and other politicians in attendance as they departed.

A part of Egypt’s northern territory, the Sinai Peninsula sits on a long border with Israel. Islamic militants have become increasingly active in the mountainous, desert region and Egypt’s use of air force signaled an important escalation in the country’s attempts to crack down on the militants. Last night a gunman fired on three checkpoints in the capital of North Sinai province, wounding six people. The military airstrikes followed soon after.

In the DailyNewsEgypt.com website’s compilation of Egyptian opinion
Al-Tahrir columnist Wael Abdel-Fatah viewed the attack as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Egyptian Army and prove its inability to safeguard the country’s borders. His concerns were echoed by Emad Al-Din Hussein in the Al-Shorouk newspaper that the extremists responsible for the attack were actually acting in the interests of Israel by pointing out Egypt’s weakness in exerting its sovereignty of the Sinai Peninsula.

However, Fawaz Gerges in the Guardian blames the attack on the underlying instability of the Sinai created by a series of severe social challenges.

For more coverage on the security concerns in Sinai, along the Egypt-Israel border, tune-in to Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour.

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