Egyptian authorities have begun implementing phase two in the flattening of large swaths of Rafah where over 2,000 families live, and the widening of the buffer zone between the Egyptian border town and the Gaza Strip.
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According to Egyptian reports, the second phase involves destroying everything standing across an additional 500 meters from the border area, on top of the 500 meters already cleared several months ago. Some 1,220 homes and structures housing 2,044 families will be demolished, after nearly 800 homes and buildings were demolished in the first phase. Egypt announced it was setting up the buffer zone after 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in an October 24 suicide bombing.
The governor of northern Sinai, Abdel-Fattah Harhour, sounded even more determined over the weekend, saying that the buffer zone would require evacuating all of Rafah, but stressed that a new city would be built for the residents. The Egyptian government is slated to pay compensation to the residents based on the size of their homes, but not for their farmland. According to Harhour, the families will get 1,500 Egyptian pounds (around $210) to rent alternative accommodations until the compensation comes through.
Local observers, however, say the number of people to be evacuated will be considerably higher because many of the area’s residents are not listed in official records. Mahmoud Barhoum, a local journalist, said many families have been evacuated to farms outside the area of the buffer zone because they haven’t received compensation, and that in any case it is very difficult to find affordable homes for rent.
Hassan al-Nahlawi, a northern Sinai social activist, said most Rafah residents are heading to the populated areas of Al-Arish and other villages along the northern Sinai coast. Nahlawi described the situation as a humanitarian crisis, noting that families whose homes are not actually in the planned buffer zone are also being forced out because of the military activity in the area. Those families have gotten no help or compensation from the government at all, and are living in camps west of Al-Arish.
Reports from Rafah say the government has indeed declared that a new, modern city will be erected near the destroyed town, and families who were evacuated would eventually be housed there. But at this stage, there is no clue when such a plan might be implemented. “On paper there are lots of plans, in the field things look a lot more complicated,” an Egyptian journalist familiar with Egyptian security and strategy issues told Haaretz.
The official Egyptian media have been defending the plan as crucial for Egyptian national security, to prevent smuggling and to deal with tunnels being used by terror groups to stage attacks in Sinai. The Al-Ahram daily recently tried to promote the city as an opening for investment in the region, particularly for families that had previously made a living from the smuggling tunnels. The article spoke of investments in commerce, agriculture, fishing, tourism and more.
Egyptians say this is not the first time the authorities destroyed neighborhoods and rebuilt them elsewhere, noting it had done so when the Suez Canal was widened after the Yom Kippur War. It isn’t clear, however, that the government has the financial wherewithal to carry out the housing project within reasonable time, and many are calling on the government to allow private-sector investors to get involved so the construction goes more quickly.
The project has also been criticized by local opposition and within the Arab world as a scheme aimed at tightening the screws on Hamas and the Gaza Strip out of deference to Israel’s security.