Egypt’s military campaign against insurgents in northern Sinai is harming thousands of civilians and risks turning more people against the government, according to Human Rights Watch.
The government has evicted 3,200 families over the past two years and razed hundreds of hectares of farmland and thousands of homes in its bid to destroy smugglers’ tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula, the rights group said in a report published on Tuesday.
“Destroying homes, neighbourhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organisation’s director in the Middle East and north Africa.
“The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes – none at all for their farmland,” Human Rights Watch said.
Egypt’s government wants to create a buffer zone along its border with the Gaza Strip to destroy a cross-border network of tunnels. The government accuses Islamic militants of using the tunnels to move between Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and Gaza, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.
The remote territory is characterised by isolated towns, desert and mountainous areas suitable for guerrilla operations. Some disaffected local Bedouin tribesmen in the region, which suffers from economic hardship, have turned to smuggling, organised crime and radical Islam.
The Egyptian government has been battling an insurgency in the region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid protests against his rule and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local Islamic State affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in northern Sinai. While violence has largely been confined to the region, bombs have also hit other parts of the country, including Cairo.
The organisation also said it received video footage showing an American-made M60 tank shelling a building to demolish it. It called on the US to make sure its weapons were not being used in violation of human rights.Human Rights Watch said the US had trained the Egyptian military to use “sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology” to find and destroy tunnels and avoid wiping out entire neighbourhoods.
As Egypt fights insurgents in northern Sinai, “it should do so in a way that does not arbitrarily harm civilians and violate their right to housing and their protections during forced evictions”, Human Rights Watch said.
Northern Sinai has been largely closed off to media, and it is difficult to independently verify reports from the area.
Egypt’s military spokesman Brig Gen Mohammed Samir declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch report, referring questions to a government spokesman. Government spokesman Hossam Qawish, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid and presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef did not answer calls for comment.