Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Egyptian Armed Forces’ practice of home demolitions across North Sinai in a new dispatch report from the region published on Tuesday.
In the report, which includes time series analyses of satellite imagery between January 15 and April 15 as well as interviews with eyewitnesses, HRW estimated that 3,600 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed, while hundreds of hectares of farmland have been razed within a 12 km zone along the border with Gaza.
HRW quoted three eyewitness who said that the Armed Forces demolished and set fire to several buildings in Arish, which “they claimed suspects or relatives of militants owned.”
The organization described the ongoing demolitions as “illegal,” as they took place without “extensive and transparent negotiations with the local community.” Moreover, in what HRW calls a process of “forced evictions,” residents were not provided with reasonable notice, compensation or alternative housing.
The report also cites the demolition of over 100 buildings north of al-Arish International Airport, which lies south of the city. This measure was taken after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the five km airport buffer zone in January 2018, following the assassination attempt on two of Egypt’s top security officials, Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, which took place at the airport in December of last year.
HRW pointed to what it described as “a major escalation in demolition activity after February 9,” the day that Operation Sinai 2018 was launched.
The rights organization’s Tuesday report cited research published by the government-run al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, which used official military statements to demonstrate that the Egyptian Armed Forces had demolished around 3,700 dens, hideouts and storehouses belonging to militants during the first ten weeks since the February 9 launch of Operation Sinai 2018.
According to HRW, the organization could not find any evidence of official decrees either discussed in parliament or published in the Official Gazette which would “lawfully frame” President Sisi’s decision to create a buffer zone around Arish airport in January 2018, or which establish a clear process toward compensating “those whose homes and farms the authorities destroyed to make way for this buffer zone.”
In October 2014, the Egyptian military ordered the evacuation of all homes within five km of the Gaza border in order to create a buffer zone, after the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai militant group carried out an attack on the Karm al-Qawadees checkpoint in the Sheikh Zuwayed region of North Sinai, leaving at least 31 dead. The Armed Forces announced that the clearing of the buffer zone was part of a larger operation to rid the area of terrorist cells, demolish tunnels and prevent the smuggling of weapons and militants into Sinai.
According to this October 2014 decision, the buffer zone included the entire city of Rafah and extended from the village of Abu Shanar in the north, to the area of Gouz Abu Raad in the south, reaching Tayra village in the south, located east of the border with Gaza.
In an April report, HRW warmed of a “looming humanitarian crisis” in north and central Sinai, which the organization deemed a result of the ongoing military operation in the peninsula. HRW urged the Egyptian government to provide adequate food supplies and to allow relief organizations to deliver basic necessities to residents amid growing shortages in food, gas and medical supplies resulting from the severe restrictions on transport to and from major North Sinai cities.