Beirut — The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018, as part of its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group there, Human Rights Watch said today. The new destruction, including hundreds of hectares of farmland and at least 3,000 homes and commercial buildings, together with 600 buildings destroyed in January, is the largest since the army officially began evictions in 2014.
The destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of al-Arish and Rafah. The army also demolished several homes in al-Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.
"Turning people's homes into rubble is part of the same self-defeating security plan that has restricted food and movement to inflict pain on Sinai residents," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Egyptian army claims it is protecting people from militants, but it's absurd to think that destroying homes and displacing lifelong residents would make them safer."
The demolitions and forced evictions, without judicial oversight and with little or no assistance offered for temporary housing, have exacerbated the negative humanitarian impact caused by army-imposed restrictions on residents of the area, according to local residents. The army has conducted demolitions in northern Sinai as part of its continuous military operations since 2013, but in 2014 the government announced a plan to evict people from a 79-square-kilometer security buffer zone, including the entire city of Rafah, on the border with Gaza. The army said the evictions were needed to end smuggling of fighters and weapons through tunnels from Gaza. Between July 2013 and August 2015, the army demolished at least 3,250 buildings, and in late 2017, the government resumed these forced evictions.
The recent demolitions also include homes in a new security buffer zone around al-Arish airport. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said this was needed after the Sinai Province group (the Islamic State affiliate operating in Sinai) claimed responsibility for a missile attack on December 19, 2017 on an air base and a military helicopter. According to the Sinai Province group's statement, the attack targeted the defense and interior ministers who were visiting the area. The attack did not harm the ministers but killed one army officer and injured two. There also have been a smaller number of demolitions inside the town of al-Arish, the most populous city in North Sinai.
Human Rights Watch sent letters, on May 10 and 11, 2018, to the Egyptian Defense Ministry, North Sinai Governor Abdel Fattah Harhor, and the State Information Service to inquire about the ongoing demolitions but has received no response.
Human Rights Watch analyzed a time series of satellite imagery recorded between January 15 and April 14 and identified evidence of widespread building demolition in multiple villages and towns in North Sinai. Human Rights Watch concluded from its spatial analysis of the imagery that the army, during these months, demolished 3,600 buildings and razed hundreds of hectares of farmland within a 12-kilometer zone along the border with Gaza, along with the smaller pockets of demolition of over 100 buildings north of the al-Arish airport, which is just south of the city. The images reveal a major escalation in demolition activity after February 9. While Human Rights Watch identified over 600 other buildings demolished in January and early February, the army demolished at least 3,000 homes between February 9, when the government declared a major new security offensive, and April 15. The total number of buildings demolished so far in 2018 is the largest since the government ordered the eviction of residents from the Rafah buffer zone in October 2014.
Most of the recently demolished buildings were those that had remained standing after the creation of the original five-kilometer security buffer zone area in Rafah. Now, the army has almost entirely demolished the city, where 70,000 people used to live. However, the army has also demolished at least 250 buildings outside of this zone since mid-January and most likely demolished hundreds more in 2017, according to analysis of satellite imagery that Human Rights Watch reviewed. The army also apparently began to construct a barbed-wire fence that would separate the five-kilometer buffer zone in Rafah from the rest of Sinai, the independent news website Mada Masr reported on May 18.
Three witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, as well as corroborating news reports, indicated that security forces, primarily the army, demolished or set fire to several buildings in al-Arish that they claimed suspects or relatives of militants owned. The army has frequently announced the destruction of dozens of "terrorist hideouts" and vehicles without offering further details. A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-run research entity, said that, based on official army statements, the army had demolished about 3,700 terrorist "hideouts, shelters, and stockrooms" within 10 weeks after the start of the February 9 offensive.
Witnesses and victims interviewed remotely told Human Rights Watch that the army began demolishing houses and razing farms around al-Arish Airport soon after President al-Sisi announced the five-kilometer airport buffer zone in January 2018.
"My younger brother called me," said a man living outside Egypt whose family home in the city was destroyed. "He said that security forces came and forced my mother, grandmother, and younger brother out of the house. Then they set the whole building on fire."
On January 5, the People's Committee in al-Arish City, an independent gathering of clan leaders and activists, said in a statement that the escalating army campaign in the city and accompanying military posts and home demolitions were "paving the way" to "repeat what happened in Rafah."
The committee called on the government to allow the local people's councils, a traditional mechanism of community consultation through local representatives, to negotiate demands with the authorities. Forced evictions, even when justified for security reasons, should only be carried out after extensive and transparent negotiations with the local community to guarantee a fair process, Human Rights Watch said.
International law generally prohibits "forced evictions," defined as the permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from their homes or land, without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection. These protections include authorities carrying out genuine consultation with residents, adequate and reasonable notice, and adequate compensation or alternative housing. In conflict zones, deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects are prohibited, including all demolitions of residents' homes not strictly required by military necessity.
"Abiding by the law is what should distinguish law enforcement from criminal groups, but Sinai residents appears to be singularly trapped between two fires - the army home demolitions on one side, and Sinai Province's brutal violence on the other," Whitson said.
President al-Sisi has imposed a state of emergency in North Sinai governorate since October 2014. The 1958 Emergency Law under which it was imposed has a number of draconian provisions, including allowing the authorities to evict residents of certain areas or properties with no judicial oversight or access to genuine appeal mechanisms.
Human Rights Watch could not find any official decrees that have been discussed in the parliament or published in the Official Gazette to lawfully frame al-Sisi's January 2018 decision to create a buffer-zone around al-Arish airport or to establish clear measures for compensation for those whose homes and farms the authorities destroyed to make way for this buffer-zone. The Emergency Law requires the authorities to explain any verbal order in writing within eight days.
In a September 2015 report, Human Rights Watch documented the army's destruction of 540 buildings between July 2013 and October 26, 2014. The report demonstrated that even before the government's eviction decree had passed on October 26, 2014, the army had already demolished hundreds of buildings.
The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch examined of the recent demolitions suggests that it is highly probable Egyptian authorities are demolishing most buildings in a two-stage process. Initially, buildings in a targeted area are set on fire. Within weeks, what remains of the buildings are demolished either with heavy machinery or with uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. Farmland adjacent to demolished buildings appears to be razed with heavy machinery.
Human Rights Watch identified in satellite imagery hundreds of kilometers of heavy military vehicle tracks on farmland in North Sinai, running between large military bases and concentrations of demolished buildings.
Demolitions Under Secrecy
The recent demolitions in Sinai occur under near complete secrecy, and the government has not released any comprehensive figures on the numbers of houses demolished, families evicted, or citizens affected. The authorities last released official figures in mid-2016, when the North Sinai Governorate administration said that 5,324 families comprising 21,861 people had been displaced. Earlier official statements acknowledged that the army had demolished 2,022 homes as part of creating the Rafah buffer zone in 2014-2015.
In late 2017 and early 2018, pro-government newspapers reported that the government had resumed the "third" and "fourth" stages of its security plan to complete the eviction of residents remaining in the Rafah buffer zone announced in October 2014. Media reports quoted officials saying they were compensating the evicted families but did not give any details.
Both pro-government and independent Egyptian media reports citing families' accounts suggest that the eviction process is largely unlawful and in violation of most of the safeguards provided for in international law. Human Rights Watch's September 2015 report found that the eviction process in 2013 and 2014 was also unlawful.
In a rare public statement, Atef Ebied, the head of the Agriculture Directorate at North Sinai Governorate, was quoted in the privately owned al-Mal newspaper on May 3 as saying that "all farmlands in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed cities were razed." He also said that only 10 percent of farmlands in al-Arish remained. As a result, 80 percent of olive crops were lost, but Ebied said that land owners "would be compensated" with other farmlands in the city of Baer al-Abd.
The People's Committee in North Sinai, which includes representatives of al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuwayed, released a statement on November 17, 2017 saying that "displacement is escalating and widening to the furthest borders of Rafah." The statement also said that any compensation was already delayed and will "only equal a small percentage of [the value] of the demolished [houses]." The statement also accused the government of deliberately cutting water and electricity in evicted areas to force people to leave.
Reporting on the forced evictions and home demolitions in Rafah in September 2015, Human Rights Watch documented how the authorities offered residents little or no warning of evictions and ordered them to leave their houses within 24 or 48 hours. Evicted families said the authorities offered them no assistance in moving their possessions or in finding temporary housing. Judicial bodies did not oversee government compensation in the cases in which it was provided, and authorities offered no process for residents to appeal compensation decisions. Moreover, the government offered no compensation for damages to or destruction of farmland. Human Rights Watch research indicated that a lack of compensation and assistance to evicted families remained a serious concern for those affected in the wake of the latest demolitions and evictions.
Under the title "We Won't Leave Sinai," the People's Committee in North Sinai said in a statement that "we want to be treated as human beings and citizens" and called on the government to compensate evicted people and allow them to return to Sinai.
"Anas," from al-Arish but who now lives outside Egypt, said that in March the army razed his family's 18-acre olive farm, three kilometers south of Al-Arish airport. Anas said that his family had owned this land for over 70 years, yet the army offered no compensation, nor did it record the number of olive trees destroyed so they could accurately calculate their value for fair compensation.
He said that the farm was the main source of income for his father and brother, and that several other farmers worked there. He said that there had been no clashes or militant activities close to their farm, but that the destruction of the farm was a "systematic policy of cutting trees and oppressing [residents]."
The demolitions and accompanying forced evictions have worsened the humanitarian situation for many North Sinai families, according to residents. Army restrictions since February 9 have largely put economic activities on hold, and many people have lost their sources of income.
Witnesses also said that since the new campaign started, the army has banned the transport of construction material to North Sinai and forbidden new construction.
Unlawful Home Demolitions of 'Suspects,' Dissidents
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the army has arrested people arbitrarily during neighborhood searches during the recent military offensive, and in several cases the army demolished buildings in al-Arish in "reprisal" against those wanted by the government. Media reports in December 2017 and March 2018 mentioned home demolitions of "suspects."
Human Rights Watch interviewed three people whose homes the army demolished in March and April. Two of those interviewed were not in Sinai but their relatives and neighbors told them what happened. An activist provided Human Rights Watch with videos and photos of the three demolished homes, and the victims verified that these were their homes. There had been no clashes or militants around the houses in the months before the demolitions, the victims said. In two cases, they said that one or more of their relatives was politically active with the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups opposing the government.
"Yassin," a young man now living outside Sinai, said that around midnight on March 31, the army, accompanied by police forces, demolished his family's three-story building that had six apartments, three of them rented out to other families:
My younger brother called me. He said that security forces came and forced my mother, grandmother, and younger brother out of the house. Then they set the whole building on fire. They demanded our neighbors not help in extinguishing the fire ... The fire did not leave anything [any furniture]. Security forces came again and demolished the whole building.
Yassin said that security forces did not offer any explanation. They only asked about one of his younger brothers who had fled their home because he had been arrested twice on accusations of "joining a banned group." Yassin said that authorities tortured his brother in detention but later released him, pending trial. He also said that his father was detained for two months without charge.
"Nour," a young man who now lives outside Egypt, said that the army demolished his family's house in al-Arish on April 1. They lived on the second floor, while the ground floor was rented to a charity group. He said that his family had been stuck outside Sinai, unable to return home since February 9, when the army imposed severe movement restrictions on people coming in and out of the governorate. He first knew about the demolition from posts on Facebook and some friends who called him. He then called his mother. A neighbor told his mother that the army had surrounded the house without any prior notice and had come to demolish it, he said:
Soldiers fired their guns to disperse neighbors who [gathered to] prevent the demolition ... After negotiations, neighbors removed some furniture and important possessions from home before the neighbors were dispersed again ... They demolished the front of the building. And on the second and third day they resumed demolishing it.
He said that both his parents and three of his siblings used to live in the house. He believes the reason the army demolished the house was that their father, who has been detained for four years, was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government declared the group illegal in 2013 after ousting then-President Mohamed Morsy, a leader of the group. Nour also said he had been arrested twice and later released in a presidential pardon.
"Youssef," an Islamist activist who lives outside Egypt, said the army demolished his two-story home in the al-Ayoub neighborhood in al-Arish on March 20 as a reprisal for his opposition to the government. He said that no one had lived in the house since October 2014 until two months earlier, when he rented the house to a family from Sheikh Zuwayed.
Both the army and police forces came to the house, forced the residents out, and demolished it two days later. He lost all of his furniture. He said that the authorities had previously arrested three of his brothers, and that the demolition was punishment for his political activities.