Approximately 1 km of a massive barrier that runs along the ring road on the south of Arish, the capital of North Sinai, has been completed over the last month, according to local sources and eyewitness. The wall is intended to separate the city from the security perimeter around the Arish airport.
Construction started, the eyewitnesses say, around a month ago, on the southern side of the ring road near the Ibn Khaldoun School. It then advanced east toward Tawil village and west toward the industrial zone.
The construction work is being overseen by the Armed Forces, eyewitnesses tell Mada Masr. A source who works in contracting in the governorate tells Mada Masr that the information circulating among members of the local contracting community is that the concrete part of the barrier will be 5.5 meters high and approximately 0.5 meters thick, with a 1-meter-high barbed wire fence on top of it.
The source says that the contractor undertaking the project is a large non-military contracting and construction company, which he believes to be Orascom Construction. Mada Masr, however, has been unable to independently verify Orascom Construction’s involvement in the project. He attributes the fact that the project was not commissioned to a local North Sinai-based contracting company to its magnitude. The construction requires heavy machinery only available to larger companies, such as the concrete pump mixers that residents — whose work commutes take them by the Arish airport area — have seen on site behind the fence that encircles the airport.
The source also tells Mada Masr that the company is likely to undertake other large-scale projects within the area that the barrier wall will enclose. Those projects may be large expansions of the Arish airport or other projects connected with the “deal of the century,” a US-led initiative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which will likely involve security and economic arrangements on the border between Egypt and Gaza and the Egyptian-Israeli border, as well as several development projects in Sinai that are expected to be central to the deal.
Eyewitnesses quote workers engaged in the construction of the barrier as saying that they do not know the extent of the area that the wall will encompass — the only information they have is that it will stretch for 10 km along the ring road, then take a southbound turn at the intersection with the Arish–Hassana Road, and extend for 17 km after that. Meanwhile, the contracting source says that the information he received is that the barrier will seal off particular sides of the security perimeter around the Arish airport.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced in mid-January plans to create a security perimeter around the Arish airport, clearing a 5 km radius around takeoff fields. The presidential declaration was made in the wake of a December attack, in which the aircraft designated for former Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy was the target of missile fire while on the airport tarmac. Former Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was accompanying Sobhy at the time of the attack.
On February 9, the Armed Forces launched Operation Sinai 2018, a large-scale military campaign that aims to “end terrorism” in the northern and central parts of the Sinai Peninsula. Eyewitnesses relate that the pace of work within the security perimeter surrounding the Arish airport picked up with the launch of the military operation.
According to the January presidential declaration, the designated security perimeter will stretch for 5 km off the eastern, western and southern sides of the airport, and only 1.5 km to the north, ending by the ring road to keep the integrity of the residential Arish areas.
But the sources and eyewitnesses who spoke to Mada Masr say that, if built, the new barrier will disconnect residential Arish from the Wadi al-Arish area south of the city, a valley where all the city’s agricultural activity is located. Large stretches of that land have already been razed over the past few months. The barrier will also enclose the two villages of Salam and Habayen (which are located within the airport security perimeter and were already evacuated in February) as well as the residential hubs of Abu Manouna and Arab Belli near the airport (from which residents were forcibly evacuated by the Armed Forces in June), according to local sources.
If the barrier stretches further to the west, it is also likely, according to the sources, to enclose the industrial zone near the city. The industrial zone includes many workshops, which have been deserted since mid-2017 as a result of the Armed Forces decision to block all roads leading to them. In February and March, Armed Forces bulldozers proceeded to demolish some of these workshops as part of Operation Sinai 2018. Other workshops sustained damages by missiles fired from unknown sources, according to their owners who had spoken to Mada Masr earlier this year.
To the south of Arish City, the Armed Forces razed the soil off vast stretches of olive farming lands over the past few months. The farms had sat on 15 km along the ring road, according to Google Maps, starting at the intersection with the Arish–East Qantara Road by the steam electric power station and ending at the intersection with the mid-Sinai road: Arish–Hassana.
The owner of a farm that is located 1 km to the west of the Arish airport tells Mada Masr that, days before Ramadan, he was surprised to see that his entire farm and the neighboring farms were razed — especially given that they had not been razed following the president’s earlier announcement.
He goes on to add that, even though the area has been completely sealed off since early this year, the Armed Forces allowed them access it in June so that residents could carry out water and electricity equipment and furniture that were left behind on the farm.
The Armed Forces had lined the ring road to the south of the city with 1-meter-high Jersey barriers in 2014, leaving fixed points open for cars to enter the city. But that barrier has largely been demolished, especially the part behind the Safa neighborhood, which is a primary hub for Islamic State-affiliate Province of Sinai activity.
The new barrier comes a few months after the Armed Forces installed a barbed wire fence to seal off the security perimeter proximate to the border with the Gaza Strip from the rest of the city of Rafah. The security perimeter is 5 km wide and 14 km long. It was razed and its residents evacuated over the course of five phases.