On 27 October 2014, soldiers knocked on the door of an elderly woman in the Egyptian town of Rafah, near the border with the Gaza Strip.
According to Um Muhammad, a neighbor and eyewitness, an officer told the elderly woman that the army would be blowing up her house the next day.
When the woman responded that she and her family had lived there all their lives, the officer said: “That’s it, there’s no time to talk. Move your things from this moment.”
If she didn’t, the officer said, “we’ll below it up with everything inside.”
The woman said a prayer and then told the officer: “You’re kicking us out of our homeland.”
“Go look for another homeland,” the officer retorted. “I don’t want to hear another word.”
Um Muhammad’s home too was demolished a few days later, a three-story building that housed many family members, including children.
These are just two of the stories detailed in a new Human Rights Watch report on the military regime’s forced evictions of Egyptians to create a “buffer zone” along the border and further isolate Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The destruction has been done on the pretext, never backed up with evidence, that insurgents and weapons have been entering Egypt from Gaza.
Egypt’s foreign ministry has responded to the Human Rights Watch report with assertions that it is acting to “secure” its borders against “waves of terrorism.”
From July 2013 to August 2015, Egyptian forces have destroyed at least 3,255 homes, businesses and administrative and community buildings in the Sinai Peninsula along the border with Gaza, according to Human Rights Watch.
The 90-page report is based on interviews with affected families and other witnesses as well as analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery.
Most of the demolitions have been in Rafah, an Egyptian town of 78,000 that lies just across the border from the Palestinian city with the same name.
“Extended families who had lived side by side for decades found themselves dispersed, forced to abandon the multi-story houses they had built next to their relatives and passed down through generations,” the report states. “Some families became homeless and lived in tents or sheds on open land or in informal settlements.”
The ongoing campaign of destruction is almost certainly illegal under international law, Human Rights Watch concludes.
It has been carried out in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and often with brutal violence. Citizens, given no opportunity to object, have been awarded minimal and inadequate compensation, and, in the case of seized agricultural land, no compensation at all, the report says.
Egypt, at the behest of Israel and the United States, has tried to isolate Gaza for years. Due to Israel’s siegewhich began in 2007, tunnels between Gaza and Egypt became a lifeline, helping stave off Israeli-induced shortages of essential goods.
As many as 250 tunnels operated by early 2013, with the tacit approval of Egyptian officials who reaped bribes for allowing them.
Both the governments of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his democratically elected successorMohammed Morsi made sporadic efforts to reduce them – including by building a US-financed underground steel wall and flooding them with sewage.
But the effort to destroy the tunnels was relaunched with renewed determination and brutality by Abdelfattah al-Sisi, the general who seized power in the July 2013 military coup against Morsi.
Human Rights Watch says that even if the tunnels were a legitimate target, the mass destruction of homes is both unnecessary and unjustified: all but an estimated 10 tunnels had been shut down before the mass demolitions began.
The pretext for the evictions has been to fight the growing insurgency in the North Sinai province. The insurgency escalated after Sisi’s forces massacred more than 817 civilian demonstrators in Cairo on a single day, 14 August 2013.
Most of the evictions and demolitions occurred after 24 October 2014, when a Sinai-based insurgent group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, launched a major attack on an army checkpoint in North Sinai, killing 28 soldiers.
The group later pledged allegiance to Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and changed its name to Sinai Province.
Sisi insists that the insurgency is being fueled by fighters and weapons funneled from Gaza via the tunnels, even though no serious evidence has ever been presented to back such claims.
Both before and after the coup, Egypt’s state-controlled and private media have engaged in intense and fanciful propaganda campaigns blaming Palestinians in tiny Gaza for almost every ill that has befallen the troubled country of 82 million, including the insurgency.
This is despite the fact that no significant Palestinian faction, especially not Hamas which runs the interior of Gaza, has any motive to support such an insurgency given that Egypt is the only outlet to the world for the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents.
Groups purporting to be loyal to Islamic State have, moreover, declared their enmity towards Hamas, as Hamas leaders have towards Islamic State.
Doing it for Israel?
Human Rights Watch puts it cautiously, stating that it is “unclear to what extent they [tunnels] make an effective contribution to the Sinai Province group’s military capability or to the overall insurgency.”
Citing both media reports and government statements, Human Rights Watch says that “most of the heavy weapons in use in the Sinai, including heavy machine guns, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-tank missiles, have likely been smuggled from Libya and bought, stockpiled and sold within the Sinai.”
“Israeli and US officials have expressed concern about weapons smuggling from the Sinai to Gaza, but rarely the reverse,” the report adds. “Indeed, the buffer zone appears to be as important to Israel’s security as Egypt’s.”
And this does appear to be a major part of Sisi’s motivation, at least according to a statement he made in a November 2014 media interview, quoted in the report: “When we take security measures in the Sinai, those measures confirm our sovereignty over the Sinai, which is part and parcel of Egyptian territory. We will never allow anyone to launch attacks from our territory against neighbors or against Israel.”
Sisi’s subservience to Israel is certainly an extension of the anti-Palestinian policies adopted by Egypt’s ruling elite since the two countries made peace in the 1970s.
But Sisi, in particular, owes a debt of gratitude to Israel lobby groups including AIPAC, which urged the US administration of President Barack Obama to back his coup regime.
The mass evictions of Egyptians have received “virtually no international scrutiny or condemnation,” Human Rights Watch states. Sisi’s Gulf backers and EU supporters, including Germany, France and the UK, have remained silent about the destruction.
Obama, unsurprisingly, has given them his full backing. A US State Department spokesperson said on 30 October 2014 that “we understand the threat that they [the Egyptian military regime] are facing from the Sinai” and that “Egypt has the right to take steps to maintain their own security.”
Apparently this “right” includes not just colluding in Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, but also victimizing thousands of Egyptians whose only crime is to be their neighbors.