Egypt Will Expand Its Security Zone Near Gaza Strip
By Kareem Fahim and Merna Thomas
17 November 2014
Egypt’s military said on Monday that it intended to double the size of a secured buffer zone in a town bordering the Gaza Strip after discovering smuggling tunnels across the frontier that were longer than expected, according to state news media.
Last month, with little warning, the military began destroying hundreds of houses and other dwellings in the border town, Rafah, displacing more than a thousand families in a security zone that stretched almost 1,650 feet, or 500 meters, from the border. The extension announced on Monday was an additional 500 meters, to allow the military to secure tunnels that reached 2,600 feet or more into Egypt, according to a military statement quoted in Al Ahram, the flagship state newspaper.
The proposed extension stretched into agricultural land where there were few houses, said a resident, Wissam al-Agha. If completed, it also seemed to mean that little of Rafah, which is only a little more than half a mile wide in places, would remain.
The announcement reflected growing anxiety in the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after a series of attacks that have killed dozens of soldiers, police officers and sailors in the space of several weeks. Officials are also worried that the insurgency could grow even more lethal after Egypt’s most active militant group announced its affiliation with the Islamic State, the jihadist organization operating mainly in Iraq and Syria, last week.
The Egyptian militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, last week released a long, graphic video of its deadly attacks that portrayed the military as poorly prepared for the fight, further unnerving officials. The video included grisly footage of an assault on a Sinai checkpoint that killed more than 31 soldiers, the highest death toll among military personnel in recent memory.
Since that attack, on Oct. 24, militants have killed soldiers and police officers in at least two other attacks in Sinai. And last week, in an episode that remains shrouded in mystery, an Egyptian naval vessel came under fire from gunmen in boats in the Mediterranean, in what was believed to be the first militant attack at sea, the authorities said.
Scrambling for answers, Mr. Sisi’s government has publicly blamed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis as well as unnamed foreign entities. On Monday, an Interior Ministry spokesman told the state news agency that “international intelligence agencies” were responsible, without saying which ones.
The authorities have mostly focused their attention on Gaza as a source of weapons and operational support for the attacks. Counterterrorism analysts say it is even more likely that arms are flowing over Egypt’s long, porous border with Libya.
As the military has proceeded with the destruction of the tunnels — used for smuggling, and an economic lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza — it has pledged to compensate the people displaced by the demolitions. But Mr. Agha, the resident, said he was still waiting for money.
“There is injustice for most people,” he said, detailing what he said was a history of callous treatment by the military, of the sort that has long stirred resentment in Sinai’s put-upon and neglected cities and towns.
In the past, the military had cut down the family’s olive and orange trees during searches for tunnels. Last month, as the military began creating the buffer zone, Mr. Agha said, electricity and water running to his home were cut off. He learned that he was being evacuated, he said, “when the army took down the outer wall of our house.”
“Rafah as a city is over,” he said. “There will be nothing left.”
Featured Image: Former residents gathered around remains of buildings destroyed by the Egyptian military on Nov. 4 in the border town of Rafah. Copyright 2014, Mohamed El-Sherbeny/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
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