CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Saturday banned the armed wing of Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, declaring it a ‘terrorist’ group.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, denounced the ruling against the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades as ‘a dangerous political decision that serves the interests of the occupier,’ referring to Israel. Since Egypt’s military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the authorities have accused Hamas of aiding jihadists who have waged a string of deadly attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Saturday’s court verdict followed a complaint from a lawyer accusing the Hamas armed wing of direct involvement in ‘terrorist operations’ in the Sinai, which borders Gaza, a court official said. The lawyer also accused the movement of using tunnels under the frontier between Egypt and Gaza to smuggle arms used in attacks against the police and army, the official said. Egypt’s military says it has destroyed more than 1,600 tunnels since Morsi’s ouster. In the ruling, the judge said that ‘the documents submitted by the plaintiff to the court showed that the organisation has conducted attacks… that targeted the military and the Egyptian police and facilities.’
There was no immediate response to the court ruling from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades itself, but a Hamas spokesman in Gaza said the armed wing should not be dragged into ‘Egypt’s internal affairs’. In early January, Egypt began work on doubling the width of a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to prevent militants infiltrating from the enclave. The buffer zone was created following a suicide bombing on October 24 last year that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers and wounded scores.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Saturday that Egypt faces a long, hard battle against militancy, days after one of the bloodiest attacks on security forces in years. ‘This battle will be difficult, strong, evil and will take a long time,’ he said in comments broadcast on state television after meeting Egypt’s top military officers.
On Thursday night, four separate attacks on security forces in North Sinai were among the worst in the country in years.
Islamic State’s Egyptian wing, Sinai Province, claimed the killing of at least 30 soldiers and police officers. Sisi said Egypt was confronting the ‘strongest secret organisation in the world’, a reference to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Then army chief, Sisi removed Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi from the presidency in July of 2013 after mass protests against Mursi’s rule. The military takeover was followed by a fierce crackdown on the movement, which says it is committed to peaceful activism. Egyptian officials make no distinction between the Brotherhood, Islamic State, al Qaeda and Sinai Province, previously called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, arguing the groups pose a major threat because they share the same ideology.
The Brotherhood, which accuses Sisi of staging a coup and robbing Mursi of power, said in a statement from its office in Britain that it was appalled by the killings in Sinai. It accused the army of displacing people in Sinai and burning and destroying cities. ‘There is no solution to this situation, except by returning the army to its barracks,’ it said. Islamist militants based in Egypt’s Sinai region, which has a border with Gaza, have killed hundreds of police and soldiers since Mursi’s political demise. The insurgency has spread to other parts of Egypt, the most populous Arab country. Hours before Sisi’s comments, an Egyptian court banned the armed wing of the Palestinian group Hamas – an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – and listed it as a terrorist organisation.