Powerful explosions were heard Sunday night and Monday morning near the Sinai-Gaza border, shortly after Egyptian security officials announced plans for a security buffer zone in the area to end the long-standing problem of underground tunnels.
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The decision was taken as part of an emergency program that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Egyptian National Security Council announced over the weekend in response to the series of terror attacks in northern Sinai that killed 33 Egyptian soldiers. These attacks are considered among the worst to take place since the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in June 2013.
Reports from the town of Rafah – which is bisected by the Egyptian-Gazan border, and is the nerve center of the smuggling network – indicate that Egypt is already implementing the plan. Residents of Rafah say the army has been engaged in intensive activity all along the border in recent days. The Al Risala website, closely associated with Hamas, posted photographs yesterday morning showing Egyptian military vehicles on patrol in the area, with one photo showing a bulldozer at work.
Sounds of house demolitions
Local residents say powerful explosions were heard Sunday night and yesterday morning. According to various accounts, these explosions were the sounds of homes being demolished on suspicion that they contained tunnel openings.
“Efforts are continuing to deal with the danger of the tunnels, which are becoming more sophisticated. Criminal and terrorist elements are using homes and houses of worship as part of their operations,” a defense official stated.
According to Egyptian media reports, the planned buffer zone will be 14 kilometers long, three to five kilometers wide and 500 meters deep. Construction of such a zone would mean that tens of thousands of Egyptians living in the Rafah region would be forced to leave their homes. A report on the Al-Arabiya television channel, unconfirmed by any official source, said people in Rafah have begun looking into offers for replacement housing for those who are to be evacuated. Proposals for compensation include giving the evacuees replacement housing, giving them land in a different region on which to build a home, and financial compensation.
A high-ranking Egyptian official told Haaretz that unlike in the past, the government and army are now determined to build the buffer zone. He said public opinion in Egypt, Sinai and particularly Rafah support the evacuation of thousands of citizens from their homes for this purpose. But the official added it was doubtful the government could bear the cost of establishing a buffer zone of the length, width and depth reported, together with the cost of evacuating so many people.
A report published yesterday in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm stated that tribal leaders in the northern Sinai region had met with high-ranking Egyptian defense officials, and suggested an alternative way of building the buffer zone: by constructing a canal along the Egyptian-Gazan border from Rafah to the Gazan village Karem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom). The canal would make it difficult for smugglers to tunnel under the border, while its relatively modest dimensions would require evacuating few residents and the cost would be lower. Egyptian defense officials said they would study the tribal leaders’ proposal, with Egyptian officials saying it was likely to be chosen over the original, more grandiose plan.
According to the report, defense officials said they would reject any plan to establish a buffer zone involving massive removal of civilians, and at most would evacuate families in limited, surgical fashion.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian army began a large-scale operation to attack the jihadist infrastructure in northern Sinai, which intelligence reports say was used by the cell that perpetrated the recent attacks on soldiers. The Egyptian Air Force attacked several targets, with reports saying more than 30 jihadists were killed and dozens wounded. The operation is slated to continue over the next few days.
Hamas opposes buffer zone
In Gaza, high-ranking Hamas operatives criticized Egypt’s decision to close the Rafah border crossing, and urged Egypt not to build a buffer zone on the Gazan border. Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ official in charge of foreign relations, said a buffer zone would reinforce the siege of the Gaza Strip. Denying Egyptian accusations, he said Hamas had nothing to do with violence in northern Sinai, stressing that Hamas wanted good relations with Egypt.
Hamdan also called on Egypt to retract its decision to delay the cease-fire talks between Palestinians and Israel. He said that putting off the talks would give Israel a golden opportunity to continue sabotaging the Gazan reconstruction effort. Other Palestinian groups have joined Hamas against Egypt’s position, which holds Hamas responsible for any security-related incident in Sinai. They said it was too easy for the Egyptian government to point an accusing finger at Gaza.