CAIRO, Egypt — The city of Rafah, which has been a part of Egypt since the pharaonic period, is to be removed from the map; its residents relocated to the imaginatively named, yet-to-be-built city of New Rafah.
Rafah is located in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt’s northeast, straddling the border with the Gaza Strip. It is home to thousands of families, all of whom will be forcibly relocated under plans to create a “buffer zone” on the border.
Egyptian authorities hope the no-go zone will disrupt smuggling and militant operations in the troubled Sinai — but the scale and lack of prior notice, adequate compensation or provision of alternate housing for displaced families has prompted concern from rights groups.
The plan was put into action in late October. At first, the buffer zone stretched 500 meters from the border. With little warning, police notified residents that they would clear the area, and said they would forcibly seize the property of those who refused to comply.
Though journalists are forbidden in Egypt’s troubled easternmost governorate, images trickled out of families bearing bundles of clothes and belongings looking on powerless as army bulldozers destroyed their homes.
Then, in January, the zone was extended a further 1,640 feet — with demolitions still ongoing.
Meanwhile, Abdel Fatah Harhoor, the governor of North Sinai, announced plans to create a 3-mile buffer zone along the Gaza border that would include “the entire town of Rafah.”
The drastic measures are aimed at preventing the smuggling of weapons and other contraband, as well as the movement of persons, to and from the blockaded Gaza strip.
A crackdown on jihadi and extremist activity in Sinai has intensified since mid-2013, what was once a low level conflict has bloomed into a fully-fledged insurgency. Hundreds of security forces have been killed in the last 18 months. The largest attack in October of 2014 left more than 30 dead.
Just this Thursday, 27 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a series of attacks targeting military facilities in North Sinai and Suez.
The State of Sinai, formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November, took responsibility for the Sinai-based attacks on their Twitter account.
A changing Egypt
There was a time when such a large buffer zone and the thousands it left homeless might have been met with more widespread resistance from Egyptian society.
Despite officially blockading the border with Gaza since 2006, Egyptian security forces turned a blind eye to tunnels for a long time, recognizing that they provided a crucial supply of civilian goods. Tunnels were allowed to proliferate.
In early 2013 though, something shifted and the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi began to flood the tunnels and discuss the prospect of a buffer zone. At the time, Essam el-Haddad, former national security advisor to ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, now in prison, told Reuters, "We don't want to see these tunnels used for illegal ways of smuggling either people or weapons that can really harm Egyptian security."
But although the idea of a buffer zone is not new, the repercussions of displacing such a large number of people could be severe.
When the army first moved to crack down on insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula in mid-2013, many among the population welcomed their intervention. But residents said they felt the campaign became increasingly indiscriminate.
With civilians shot at checkpoints, frequent raids on homes and a punishing curfew in some areas, the state soon lost the support of the locals and the buffer zone has the potential to alienate them still further.
Rafah’s population already lives under martial law and contend on a daily basis with a 4 p.m. curfew in some places, checkpoints, raids on homes and random arrests.
And while the demolitions have begun, the locations of the new city has not even been decided upon and construction has yet to begin. Therefore the question of where the displaced residents of the old Rafah might live, as well as how they are to provide for themselves and their families, remain unaddressed.
Leaving thousands of residents without homes could have the opposite of the plan's intended effect.
“The longer it takes them to pay out compensations and to find places to live and to renew livelihoods of those who are being displaced, the more susceptible the 10,000 people who are being displaced are to jihadi recruitment,” says Zack Gold, a fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
From the time it was established, the Sinai-based terrorist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has been successful at tailoring its recruitment messaging to exploit the political and economic frustrations of the local population and their disillusionment with the Egyptian government.
The group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November. This month images circulated on social media of members of the new IS affiliate the “State of Sinai” distributing aid to displaced Rafah residents.
Regardless of the credibility of these videos, the fact that the group is seeking to show itself emulating the state-like structure of IS by providing compensation to the displaced is a worrying sign.
Because in recent months the tunnels have been so tightly controlled, the buffer zone will likely not have the massive impact on Gaza it might once have had.
In the absence of a sustainable long-term solution for citizens of Gaza — a solution that would not involve Egypt alone — the need for tunnels will persist. And in the meantime, analysts say, they will likely only grow longer.
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