By Ismail Iskndarani
In parallel with the military operation launched by the Egyptian army in Sinai, eyewitnesses confirmed to Al-Akhbar that the army is also demolishing homes on the Egyptian side of Rafah, without compensating owners and even threatening to expel them. It seems that the army wants to establish a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip.
A high-level army commander visited several neighborhoods adjacent to the border on the evening of Saturday, August 31, to ask residents to evacuate their homes within a week in preparation for their demolition. According to Khaled Samir, a resident of Rafah, the military commander in question came to the neighborhood of Qanabza in plainclothes, giving the residents a week before the army would begin razing buildings within a 500-meter radius from the line separating the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of Rafah.
When asked whether the residents were compensated, Samir answered sarcastically, “We have all built palaces out of the profits from the tunnels.” Taking on a more serious tone, Samir rejected what he called generalizations and collective punishment, saying that he has not been able to get married yet because his government salary was not even enough to cover his basic needs.
The threat of expelling dozens of families without compensation led residents of the area to stage a small protest on Sunday. Tensions in the city were fueled further when the army began demolishing homes owned by the Shaweir family, prompting their occupants to threaten to blow themselves up using cooking gas bottles should the army come in. But a field commander intervened and ended the standoff, telling the residents that the demolition would be stopped and that they would not be expelled.
However, this did not last for more than a day. On Monday afternoon, the army resumed demolishing homes, which the locals stressed did not contain any tunnels. This puts the total number of homes demolished in Rafah in the span of three weeks at nine, some using explosives and others using bulldozers.
Human rights activists from Sheikh Zowaid, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Akhbar that when they went to document the demolitions, they were warned by local residents not to approach because there was a “settling of scores” taking place between the owners of the homes and Egyptian intelligence officers.
Meanwhile, the residents of the border region claimed that the vehicles carrying goods to be smuggled through the tunnels could still be seen passing as usual, while most tunnels were operating efficiently. These residents said that the demolished tunnels shown in propaganda pictures by the Egyptian army accounted for only a small number of the tunnels supplying goods to Gaza.
According to the official account, only homes adjacent to tunnels are being demolished. However, residents of Rafah say that the number of destroyed tunnels is less than half the number of homes.
On the eastern side of the border, residents of the Gaza Strip complain of a fuel crisis, which has produced long lines at gas stations, but they did not complain about any shortage in basic goods or high inflation. According to a security source, stepping up control over the tunnels on the Egyptian side affects the passage of individuals, fuel, subsidized goods, and weapons. But basic goods are allowed in so that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will not worsen further and blow up in the face of the Egyptian authorities, as the source put it.
In parallel with the demolitions, the army has carried out attacks against what it says are militant positions, but which have affected civilian homes. On Tuesday, Egyptian army Apache helicopters bombed positions in the villages of Thuma and Muqataa, south of Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah, but local sources said that four empty houses in Thuma were hit, including an abandoned cottage belonging to a radical Islamist from the Nile Valley.
Two homes were also attacked in the village of Muqataa, and parts of the Abu Munir mosque nearby came under fire. While locals said that there were no fatalities, state television claimed that more than 10 were killed and several more injured. Neighbors living near the bombed houses denied the official account, which claimed that weapons caches had been the targets.
On Wednesday morning, the Salafi Jihadi Group in Sinai issued a statement accusing the army of deceit and treason, citing the civilian homes destroyed in the bombardment and the damage sustained by the mosque.
The statement said that the home of the family of Yusri Muharib al-Sawarka, who was assassinated by an Israeli drone during Eid al-Fitr, was also targeted in the bombing. The statement was supplemented by a few dozen pictures of the aftermath of the bombardment on the mosque and the homes, including detailed information about the remnants of rockets used.
Interestingly, Debka, a website close to Israeli intelligence, published a comment on the incidents in Sinai, saying that this was the first time in eight years that the Egyptian army fulfilled commitments agreed to by Hosni Mubarak in 2005 following the Israeli unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
According to Debka’s report, the Egyptian army, since the ouster of Mohamed Mursi, has pursued two strategies simultaneously to crack down on “terrorists” who Debka claims pose a threat to both Egypt and Israel: establish a 14 km buffer zone along the border with Gaza and erect dozens of checkpoints in the region to restrict logistical supplies to the militants.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.