Rafah, Gaza – Ahmed al-Afifi cannot focus on studying as midterm exams approach. For the past two weeks, the constant sounds of explosions have echoed from across the border.
“We are not psychologically ready for this,” said al-Afifi, 22, a Gaza-based university student who lives in the Palestinian side of Rafah, which shares a border with Egypt’s restive Sinai peninsula. His home is about 400m from the border, and the explosions are part of an Egyptian military operation to initially create a 500m-deep buffer zone.
But on Tuesday November 18, Egyptian authorities said they were to expand the buffer zone to one km.
The army is clearing the area by using dynamite and bulldozers, a systematic campaign also aimed at destroying smuggling tunnels into Gaza. The operation followed the killing of 33 Egyptian soldiers in an attack in North Sinai in October. Egyptian authorities have ordered residents living along the country’s eastern border with Gaza to evacuate their homes, which are targeted for demolition.
On Monday November 17, Rober Turner, head of UNRAWA operations in Gaza, said that the buffer zone set up by Egyptian authorities will make things more difficult . He described the siege as ‘unjust’.
“Gaza residents will feel that this [buffer zone] adds a psychological burden and will only make things more difficult for them,” Turner said. He, nonetheless, stressed that UNRAW services in the strip will not be affected by such a move.
Rafah was split into two halves – one in Egypt and the other in Gaza – after the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. In the last few years, especially after Israel tightened its siege on Gaza following the 2007 takeover of the area by Hamas, tunnel-digging beneath Rafah has flourished. Smugglers bring into Gaza essential items such as medicine, food, construction materials and fuel.
The crackdown on tunnels is not new: In 2013, following the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, a Hamas patron, the Egyptian army moved against the tunnels. But according to Rafah residents, the campaign to create a buffer zone is the fiercest and will effectively prevent the building of future tunnels.
Most of my friends' houses are being destroyed now by the army. I know a lot of people in Sinai, and I have memories there. It breaks my heart to see what's happening there.
Meanwhile, in the Palestinian side of Rafah, prices have soared, shop shelves are empty, utilities have been suspended operations for lack of fuel, and travel is restricted once again. Traders and vendors in downtown Rafah say the Egyptian move has further crippled an already besieged Gazan economy.
“People stopped buying our products,” Salah al-Manyarawi, who works in the al-Zahraa’ cosmetic shop in Rafah, told Al Jazeera.
Talya, a 29-year-old Palestinian refugee living in Cairo, came to Gaza along with her daughter and mother for a short family visit, but is now stuck due to the closure of the Rafah border crossing. Thousands of Palestinians have had the same experience, with Egyptian authorities frequently shutting the crossing.
“Rafah has turned into a ghost town,” said Talya, who did not provide a last name. Although she lives in Cairo, Talya has family members in both sides of Rafah.
With the ongoing demolition of homes in Sinai, the situation is becoming more and more tense for local residents.
“Most of my friends’ houses are being destroyed now by the army. I know a lot of people in Sinai, and I have memories there,” Talya said, clinging tightly to her three-year-old daughter. “It breaks my heart to see what’s happening there.”
To al-Afifi, the sound and impact of these explosions is greater than the sound of the Israeli bombs that fell on Gaza during this summer’s 51-day war. This is because the Egyptian military explosions come suddenly, without the trademark whistling or “whoosh” that accompanied the Israeli missiles, al-Afifi told Al Jazeera: “They are unexpected.”
Adnan Abu Amer, a politics professor at Gaza’s Ummah University, said while people in Gaza understand Egypt’s security concrns, the Rafah border closure and the destruction of tunnels has suffocated Gaza residents and increased their suffering.
“The tunnels are a natural consequence of the blockade imposed on Gaza for so many years,” Abu Amer told Al Jazeera. “We won’t [smuggle] through the tunnels if there’s an availability of providing alternative means of entry of goods and medicines from above the ground.”