In the city, you pray everyday not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was waiting for my neighbor in a small almond farm between our houses when it happened. I was lying down on a soft sandy spot by one of the trees for half an hour on a breezy fall day, when I realized that he wasn’t going to show up, and decided to go back home.
As I stood up to get going, the sound of gunshots rang through the air, and I heard a voice shouting, “Freeze, motherfucker! Freeze!”
The sounds and voices were getting closer and closer to the farm, and I could only turn my head right and left in shock trying to find the motherfucker who was asked to freeze.
Four soldiers appeared in the little farm as I squatted by the tree. I raised my hands up waiting for them to see me, preparing myself for the worst.
Three of them stood in a row and started shooting randomly in the air. The fourth was clearly confused as to why his colleagues were shooting, or what they were shooting at, but he joined them anyway, shooting lower and closer to me.
I threw myself on the ground and decided not to say a word, thinking that if they saw me, they would either shoot or arrest me.
Six other soldiers joined, asking the first group what happened, but no one heard them because of the heavy gunfire. Eventually, one soldier replied that someone shot at them and ran in my direction.
My entire body froze hearing that. I was lying on the ground under the whistle of bullets for 40 minutes, which felt like 40 years. The thought dominating my head at that point was that my name would end up in a headline announcing the killing of another terrorist by our valiant forces, with proud praise and cheering.
Luckily, nobody saw me that day. The motherfucker was also not found. Eventually, the shooting stopped and I made it back to my house.
A few hours later, a headline in a national newspaper read, “An armed attack on a checkpoint in the city. Our troops dealt with the attackers.”
Two years later, I still have no clue what that was all about. But my stomach is still in knots. Therapists, psychiatrists, yoga, exercise and meditation would only temporarily soothe the internal unrest. The anger, pain, bitterness and stress would return with every single bullet that I hear, and that’s what the city’s soundscape consists of nowadays.
The city once flourished — it was calm, laid back and peaceful, despite the tight security grip. Most of its residents worked in agriculture, at the border crossing or in the government, occasionally paying visits to the beach and chatting the night away around the fire. Both of these favorite pastimes are growing to be a distant memory, given the 7 pm curfew and a shore that has been off-limits to civilians for over two years.
In 2007, the city entered a new era of vibrancy following a siege on Gaza with the Hamas takeover. A few months following the siege, Gazans tore down the wall that separated the Strip and Egypt. Everything changed: people, land, politics and even the weather.
It was like some sort of a dream. You get a phone call saying that the wall had been torn down and you can actually go and visit Gaza. Despite its proximity, Gaza had been largely off-limits for people on the Egyptian side of the border, just as Egypt was for Palestinians, save for some exceptions.
But that dream ended a week later when almost everyone crossed back to their side, loaded with all kinds of goods from the other land.
The big event left everyone wondering: Was this real? How did it happen? People predicted that Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak allowed this to happen as informal support to Gazans following the Israeli siege. Whatever it was, it would never happen again, we thought. The borders were closed. And what came after was only chaos.
The tunnels came in reaction to the impossibility of crossing. Within two years, there were more than 2,000 tunnels around. Anything you could or couldn’t think of was coming and going through the tunnels. There were more outgoing goods than incoming ones. And while the tunnels served as a survival mechanism for the city’s betrayed economy, they also became the city’s curse.
With the January 2011 revolution and the ensuing security void, the city became almost stateless. It was a self-governed space until 2013, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister, asked Egyptians to give him a mandate to fight terrorism following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. The military announced the start of an ongoing operation in North Sinai aimed at eradicating terrorism. The city was claimed as a target, with the tunnels seen as the main vehicle for supplying militants and arms.
Everything changed once again.
The government imposed a curfew at sunset for almost two years. Main roads were closed, with the nastiest of checkpoints deployed in the few streets that remained open.
Moving between Arish and Rafah, once a 35-minute trip, now takes up to three or four hours. You spend them stuck at checkpoints waiting for a military convoy to pass, which could take hours, and driving around the blocked parts of the road.
The government blocked two of the three main cellular networks in the city, saying that terrorists use them heavily. The remaining one is dead for most of the day.
The everyday nuisances aside, frightening raids on the residential parts of the city have also become part of that tumultuous everyday. The raids can happen at any time of the day or night.
Ahmed*, 22, didn’t operate a tunnel himself, but just stored goods, like cartons of cigarettes, for others. For over a month, troops raided his house on a daily basis, insulting his family as they did so.
Ahmed was never caught until an officer in the last raid came with dynamite in his Jeep, threatening Ahmed’s father that he would bomb the house if Ahmed didn’t turn himself in within 24 hours. On their way out, the troops arrested Ahmed’s two young brothers. They were detained and tortured until their brother turned himself in a day later. No one knows of his whereabouts to this day.
In October 2014, militants killed 33 soldiers 12 km from the border with Gaza. The government claimed that all the weapons used in the attack came from the Gaza Strip, and in response, developed a new tactic that would eradicate the whole city.
The new tactic consisted of creating a buffer zone that would forcibly displace tens of thousands of the city’s residents, and bury the entire city under the ground for having the geographic misfortune of being in a sensitive area.
Laila*, in her 20s, had to watch her neighbor’s house being demolished as part of the buffer zone plan. An officer supervising the demolition process accused her of distributing sweets when terrorists killed soldiers, and immediately labeled her a traitor.
Laila told him that it was only reasonable for civilians to hate officers and wish them all dead when they demolish their residences, and arrest and kill their people. Offended, the officer and his team decided to demolish her house as well. Not a single thing was allowed out of the house before it was flattened to the ground. Because the house was demolished informally, Laila didn’t receive the compensation allocated for those who lost their properties in the buffer zone.
Laila moved into another flat in the city, in a compound developed by the government. One soldier spotted her while Laila was searching for her new neighbor’s house, and went to inform the same officer who had an altercation with her of her whereabouts. By the time the soldier and the officer went to her house, she was gone. Insulted by her fleeing, the officer and his team decided to figure out her location by arresting and torturing her neighbor’s son for a few hours until he finally gave in and disclosed her whereabouts. They went to the new place, broke in, threw everything out of the window and left, just like that.
Salah Salem was a young man in his late 20s with a mental disability. He was walking home when he was stopped by one of the military checkpoints. They asked him for his ID, which he didn’t have. He told them he was “with the intelligence,” as he used to buy bread for the Rafah intelligence office every morning.
They detained him at the checkpoint and resumed checking other cars and people. He decided he would walk away while the officers were busy with other cars. They asked him to stop twice, witnesses say, but he didn’t respond. He was shot twice in the back and died on the spot.
The security forces wouldn’t allow anyone to help him, and said that the ambulance was on its way. The ambulance showed up half an hour later. Salah became “a terrorist who broke through a checkpoint and was dealt with by our brave soldiers,” a headline read in a national newspaper the next day.
In order to obtain his body and bury it, Salah’s family was forced to state that the reason for his death was a bullet from an unknown source. Not only did Salah die senselessly, he has also died as a terrorist in the eyes of most people.
The leaders of the Province of Sinai — the peninsula’s major militant group, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdes — are mostly people who were freed from prison in 2011 and 2012 by their very same enemy today: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily ran the country in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. They reorganized themselves and declared war on the military. With the group growing bigger, they swore allegiance to the Islamic State and rebranded themselves the Province of Sinai.
The number of troops and ammunition increased, as did the number of militants. The crackdown intensified, and so did the militant group’s operations against the troops. They both announced their victories. They both amassed gains from the battlefield. Through them, the state has managed to deploy draconian measures, and through the state’s indiscriminate crackdown, the militants are gaining more support.
In the middle, residents remain the only losers.
Death has become the cheap currency of the city. Citizens are killed by both sides everyday. If they are killed by the militants, then they are victims of terrorism, and if they are killed by the military, they become terrorists.
In calling the city’s innocent dwellers terrorists, the military has played on the long-standing racism against the area, often cited as the reason for its miseries.
The level of the troop’s brainwashing against the city’s people has made military members believe that everyone who isn’t part of the army is automatically against them. But killing innocent people and calling them terrorists in a dirty propaganda campaign will not work forever.
As a civilian lost in the war on terrorism, it has become harder to define the word “terrorist.” The image of a terrorist that the state propagates is usually associated with a beard and a Kalashnikov. But under the current circumstances, the image of a terrorist I have now is associated with tanks, bulldozers, caps and Kalashnikovs.
The magic is turning against the magician. In its “war on terrorism,” the military is only witnessing the growth of the beast it is fighting.
*Names have been changed. The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons.