It’s 3:00 pm on Saturday, a day after the Karm al-Qawadees attack in Sheikh Zuwayed that killed over 30 soldiers.
Arish — that city whose palms have given shade to the people of the isolated peninsula — has changed. Passersby, shop owners, youth, children and old people are all sitting around, anxiously wondering. A neighbor is trying to calm someone down.
The unanswered question is: Has the war of the north started yet?
By north, they mean 50 km up the international coastal road that runs to the east east of Arish, all the way to the Rafah-Gaza border — otherwise known as the Salah al-Din gate.
Saturday had passed with relatively little bloodshed until clashes between the Armed Forces and militant groups finally stopped at 6:00 am. The city’s different neighborhoods were cut off from each other due to intense shooting from automatic machine guns, whose bullets made it inside some houses without taking any casualties.
Those coming from outside of Arish, from the mountainous roads of mid-Sinai, went through a difficult voyage, with their relatives trying to reach them through failing mobile networks that intermittently function for only about 10 minutes every few hours.
At 4:00 pm, before the curfew goes into effect, a military tank moves down July 26 Street, the commercial hub of Arish. An officer appears on top of the tank as shop owners and bystanders gather around the checkpoint that’s being set up to enforce the curfew and block off the city’s main road.
At the same time, a car dispatches a number of officers carrying handcuffs. They start calling on everybody to clear the streets and to close the shops. The deadline was 5:00 pm. After that, any one still in the street would be shot or arrested.
People start closing their shops. Others rush to get last-minute goods before they head home. Some try to break the looming sadness by making jokes about how the situation in Sinai has suddenly gone from bad to worse.
Saad Ezz, an area resident who owns a toy shop, wonders why the curfew is implemented for shops and their owners.
“How can we pay rent and salaries out of a half-day work?” she asks.
Ahmed Haroun claims that the curfew decree wasn’t meant to include Arish.
“I spoke to the people manning the checkpoint, the residents, the youth, the owners of shops, the clinics, but to no avail. The officer told us these are the command orders for the day,” he recounts.
On Monday, a group of residents from the Fawakhreya tribe — one of the most prominent tribes in the city — met to discuss the possibility of easing the pressure of the siege on Sinai. They were told that the governor is looking into the issue. They complained of how the government has effectively besieged Sinai in different ways over the last three years, such as by closing the Salam Bridge — an important lifeline to the peninsula from the rest of the country — and by jamming mobile signals.
By 5:00 pm, the streets are empty. Warning shots harshly ring out from checkpoints in front of the deserted shops, gardens and sea coast of Arish. At this hour, the ghost city has become like an oasis for distant observers watching it from their balconies.
The palms are still standing there, alone — but perhaps for not for much longer.