A rights group has accused the Egyptian army of unlawfully destroying thousands of homes, businesses and farmland in northern Sinai, as part of its campaign against the ISIL group.
Using satellite imagery and local testimony, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on Tuesday that many lifelong residents of Sinai have been displaced as a result of at least 3,000 homes and commercial buildings being destroyed by the Egyptian military.
The army is waging a campaign in the area against a group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
HWR also accused the Egyptian military of demolishing several homes in al-Arish, “in retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives”.
But the destruction, much of which is “likely unlawful” according to the group, has extended beyond the two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of al-Arish and Rafah.
Residents who have fallen victim to the recent round of demolitions told HRW that the army began demolishing houses and razing farms around the al-Arish airport, soon after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a five-kilometre airport buffer zone in January 2018.
“My younger brother called me,” said a man living outside Egypt whose family home in the city was destroyed. “He said that security forces came and forced my mother, grandmother, and younger brother out of the house. Then they set the whole building on fire.”
Since 2013, more than 1,500 military attacks have killed dozens of civilians and hundreds of members of the security forces in northern Sinai, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
While the Egyptian government maintains that its campaign has been successful in rooting out armed group members, Mohannad Sabry, expert on security and the Sinai Peninsula, and author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare, says the campaign has done little in that regard.
“The one solid accomplishment of the Egyptian army over the past four years is displacing close to 80 thousand people from more than 20 villages and the city of Rafah.
“Most of those people are literally thrown out of their homes, their farms and sources of living destroyed, and are left stranded with no help whatsoever, the majority of which are now living in clusters of plastic shacks on the outskirts of El-Arish and Bir El-Abd.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, described the Egyptian army’s actions as “absurd” and helping “exacerbate” the precarious humanitarian situation in northern Sinai.
“Turning people’s homes into rubble is part of the same self-defeating security plan that has restricted food and movement to inflict pain on Sinai residents,” she said.
“The Egyptian army claims it is protecting people from militants, but it’s absurd to think that destroying homes and displacing lifelong residents would make them safer,” added Whitson.
Sabry agrees: “Egypt’s claim that it displaces people and demolishes their homes to defeat terror is a lie, one that continues to be repeated over the rubble of the homes of innocent civilians and the blood of hundreds of personnel.”
In a rare public statement, Atef Ebied, the head of the Agriculture Directorate at North Sinai Governorate, was quoted in the privately owned al-Mal newspaper on May 3 as saying that “all farmlands in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed cities were razed.”
He also said that only 10 percent of farmlands in al-Arish remained.
Commenting on the report, Sabry said that the demolitions taking place in the Sinai were a crime against its people that have been taking place since 2014.
“The home demolitions in Sinai is a region-wide crime committed by the Egyptian army against its own people, a crime even the Israeli army did not commit over the course of 14 years of occupying the peninsula,” Sabry told Al Jazeera.
“Al Lefitat was one of the very first villages to demolished and its residents displaced in 2014, and it immediately became a usual launching point for terrorists.”
The most active armed group in the area is Sinai Province, the local ISIL affiliate which pledged allegiance to the group in 2014 and staged a series of attacks against the army in 2015.
Last November, more than 300 people were killed in an attack by fighters on worshippers at a mosque in Al-Rawda in the northern Sinai. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
The New York-based group said the demolitions and forced evictions, near the border with the Gaza Strip in northern Sinai, was making an already perilous humanitarian situation worse.
It said it sent letters to the defence ministry and the local governor over the demolitions but had yet to receive a response.
Between July 2013 and August 2015, Egyptian authorities destroyed around half of the town of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, evicting thousands of families, and demolishing at least 3,255 buildings, according to Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of families Human Rights Watch interviewed in 2016 and 2017 reported numerous arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings by the Egyptian military and interior ministry forces.