When the missile struck the corner of his house at about 2:45 pm last Monday, causing it to collapse in on itself, Sheikh Khalaf was performing ablutions inside before going to the mosque for Asr prayer.
Among those who rushed to Khalaf’s house in the aftermath was Hussam al-Qawasmeh, a young man who had been invited to a friend’s house in the village to have iftar. Qawasmeh belongs to the Rishat tribe and lives in the center of Sheikh Zuwayed, 10 kilometers to the north.
Qawasmeh and others were able to dig Khalaf and most of his family out from under the rubble. But one of Khalaf’s young sons remained buried. As the gathered crowd to try to pull him from underneath the collapsed house, another missile struck the area, killing the trapped boy, Qawasmeh and two others. Twelve more people were injured, including two children who are in a critical condition, according to villagers who spoke to Mada Masr.
Khalaf’s house, which served as a daily meeting point for many in the village, is now in rubble. And nearly a week later, there are very few answers as to why his house in the heavily fortified village, once a militant hotbed but now firmly under military control, was targeted.
While residents and injured who spoke to Mada Masr remain in disbelief, last week’s bombing tells a small part of a wider story about the collateral damage North Sinai residents suffer in the ongoing conflict in the area. Between July 2013 and mid 2017, 621 civilians were killed and 1,247 injured by stray bullets and shelling from unidentified belligerents, according to census data from a North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate document, a copy of which Mada Masr has obtained.
In this case, however, eyewitnesses, say they strongly suspect that the party behind the shelling was Egypt’s Armed Forces.
Joura’s history: One-time militant stronghold now dormant
Joura is one of the most important villages in Sheikh Zuwayed because it houses several prominent facilities, including a Sufi zawya and a military airport for UN Peacekeeping Forces.
According to the census published by the North Sinai Information Center in 2014, the population of the villages under the jurisdiction of the regional district Sheikh Zuwayed sits at 3,073.
Like all villages in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, Joura’s population diminished after the attacks of July 2015. At the time, Province of Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate in North Sinai, was trying to seize control of Sheikh Zuwayed city. The group bombed the two biggest military checkpoints in the southern area, the Abu Refaie and Sidra checkpoints, located near Joura village. It thus removed obstructions on the road to the heart of Sheikh Zuwayed.
The southern villages of Sheikh Zuwayed are a central point in the protracted conflict between the Egyptian military and militants. It was in these villages that Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which would later pledge allegiance to Islamic State and rebrand itself as the Province of Sinai, was originally established and from which attacks were launched, especially in 2015 and 2016. The villages also became a site of fighting, with everything from drones to heavy artillery being deployed and both sides taking up automatic weapons.
The villages’ residents were forced to leave their homes after finding themselves in the crosshairs of a war that many had nothing to do with. They saw their farms bulldozed, their houses bombed, and neighbors rounded up in National Security Agency arrest campaigns or kidnapped by Province of Sinai.
By the end of 2016, security forces had installed dirt mounds to effectively block all roads leading to the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, separating the villages from the rest of the district.
Despite the horrors experienced by the residents of Joura and the surrounding villages — including Abu al-Araj, Zaheer and Awaydah — they insist on staying. Perhaps the main reason is the existence of the Sufi zawya.
Another reason is that most of the residents in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed belong to the Sawarka tribe, one of North Sinai’s most prominent tribes, which announced in May 2017 that it would work alongside the Armed Forces to fight militants. Sheikh Khalaf al-Khalafat, a late eminent member of the tribe, is revered by everyone for his role in fighting the Israeli occupation after 1967. His son, Sheikh Hassan, also lives in the south and has good relationships with the security forces, largely due to his role in fighting Israeli forces in Sinai during the 1973 October War. According to residents of Joura who spoke to Mada Masr, Sheikh Hassan convinced the security forces to let people stay in their villages.
A fighter jet emerges
A few minutes after Sheikh Khalaf’s house was targeted for the second time last Monday, a fighter jet appeared in the sky. The villagers suspected that it was the aircraft that had fired the two missiles.
The Armed Forces has yet to release a statement about the house targeted in Joura. But according to villagers in Sheikh Zuwayed, this attack was similar to the occasional attacks launched by the Armed Forces against militant groups. The military usually uses artillery, fighter jets or drones. One missile is fired first. Shortly after, another is fired. The villagers said this happens in cases where militant groups are gathering and the military wants to hit the greatest number of militants.
They are convinced that there must have been a mistake. They are outraged that such an attack took place in their area, which they consider to be a military fortress due to the proliferation of checkpoints surrounding it. One checkpoint lies near Sheikh Khalaf’s house, which is also located on the road leading to the UN Peacekeeping Forces’ airport in Joura, a high-security site. There have been no attacks or clashes in the area for years now, and no militant groups are operating near the village.
Shortly after the blast, people ran to this military checkpoint, eyewitnesses said. The four people killed and 12 injured had to be taken in residents’ cars to the Sheikh Zuwayed central hospital 10 kilometers away because ambulances are not allowed into the southern villages without prior coordination with security forces. The officer in charge notified all other checkpoints along the road to allow cars carrying the wounded to pass, before helping to lift them into the cars.
From the Sheikh Zuwayed central hospital, the bodies of those killed and nine of those injured were transported to the better equipped Arish General Hospital. The other three were given first aid inside Sheikh Zuwayed’s hospital.
In the hospital
On Tuesday, North Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadel Shousha paid a visit to the injured in the Arish General Hospital. But there were still no official statements about the attack nor the entity responsible.
When Mada Masr approached Sheikh Eid Ayesh, one of Joura residents injured in the blast, he exclaims, referring to Qawasmeh: “How can we let a guest die in our midst?”
Another of the four who died was a member of Eid Ayesh’s family.
Close to Sheikh Eid’s bed lay Ahmed Mohsen, a young boy with shrapnel in his back. He was on his way to his uncle’s house, carrying the new clothes his father had bought him for Eid, when the first missile hit. He ran with the rest of the villagers to help the wounded before the second missile struck the crowd. There was a gap in Mohsen’s memory — he can’t recall what happened after the blast. The next thing he remembered, he says, was doctors trying to save him in Sheikh Zuwayed hospital.
On the same day, residents in Joura quietly buried three of those killed in the blast, all of whom were members of the Khalafat clan of the Sawarka Tribe. In the north, the Rishat tribe buried Qawasmeh.
Some residents remain in the Arish General Hospital, tending to their injured relatives.