The military started demolishing houses in Rafah, North Sinai, on Wednesday morning, after evacuation Tuesday, as part of a larger scheme to eradicate terrorist cells and prevent the smuggling of arms into the peninsula, Reuters reported.
The proposed area for evacuation includes over 800 properties, housing 1156 families and approximately 910 cultivated acres.
Despite widespread reports in local media that residents are supporting the efforts of the military, some questioned what difference the clearing of the land will actually make in the fight against terrorism.
Hammam al-Agha, a 26-year old resident of Rafah, was among those asked by the military to evacuate his house by Wednesday morning.
Agha told Mada Masr the evacuations will not help the war on terrorism, and therefore must be motivated by other factors. According to unconfirmed rumors about compensation that are being circulated in the area, the amount he would get for his three-storey house, on 400 meters of land, would not be enough to buy new land to build on.
Agha, who refused to evacuate his house on Tuesday, told Mada Masr a military officer banged on his door and said they would demolish his house with him in it, if he didn’t evacuate as instructed.
“Do they think that when they take away our houses, people will like them and terrorism will be over? On the contrary, they are creating terrorism by these actions,” Agha said.
The buffer zone is planned to extend in length along the 13,800-meter border, 500 meters wide. A canal, 30 meters deep and wide, will reportedly permeate the zone to prevent smuggling between Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
A military source told state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper that the plan aims to protect the lives of innocent civilians in Sinai, as he claims they are being used as live shields by “terrorists … who don’t have special markings on their faces; they hit and run, hiding in houses among women and children.”
The source added that the evacuation process will cost the state LE250 million.
According to officials in the North Sinai governorate, residents within 300 meters of the border were given an ultimatum to evacuate their homes and move to other locations. A second phase of evacuation will target properties within 500 meters of the border.
The curfew in Rafah was extended to 8 pm on Tuesday to allow residents time to relocate.
On Friday night, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued presidential decree no. 366 (2014), implementing a three-month state of emergency across large areas of North Sinai, including Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed. A curfew from 5 pm to 7 am each day has been implemented until further notice, and violation of the curfew can lead to imprisonment.
Meetings are reportedly being held between military intelligence, governorate officials, and heads of tribes, to decide on suitable compensation for the owners of evacuated properties.
Sinai-bound activist and journalist Mostafa Singer said on his personal Facebook page that he received information regarding compensation rates, placing the value of one square meter of constructed land at LE1200 (US$167). Evacuees will supposedly receive LE300 ($41) monthly for three months to help them rent new homes.
Privately owned Al-Watan newspaper reported that 120 homeowners agreed to the evacuation and demanded compensation on Tuesday morning.
The head of Rafah City Council said tens of homeowners gathered opposite the council building on Tuesday morning to demand a week to gather their belongings and leave their homes.
The evacuation plan follows a series of deadly attacks targeting police and military forces in Sinai that have intensified since the removal of Mohamed Morsi from power last year. The latest attack on the Karm al-Qawadees checkpoint in North Sinai on Friday claimed the lives of at least 33 soldiers and left more than 27 injured. A reactionary military operation launched on Monday resulted in eight deaths among those the Armed Forces identified as terrorists.
A statement made by military spokesperson Mohamed Samir on Tuesday regarding the ongoing security operation reported the deaths of four more members of “jihadi groups” and the arrest of 10, as well as the seizing of weapons and explosives, and the destruction of 33 “terrorist hideouts.”
Four smuggling tunnels were also destroyed by the Second Field Army, reaching a total of 1845 destroyed tunnels. Samir said the tunnels served as “one of the main threats to Egyptian national security, and a dangerous gateway for armed terrorist groups into Sinai, providing them with weapons and shelter after attacks on the military and police.”
There have been allegations from activists and opposition groups claiming the military has used its war on terrorism to enact a violent campaign against all opposition in the Sinai, often to the detriment of local residents, and with full impunity. Reports from this embattled region are often hard to verify given the lack of independent journalism in the area.