War crimes: Army destroys thousands of homes in Sinai

With the continued intensive demolition campaign carried out by the Egyptian army in Sinai, international human rights organisations described these operations as likely to amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch documented that they had destroyed at least 12,350 buildings, mostly homes, most recently in the al-Arish area between late 2013 and July 2020.

The regime has released no official statistics, but HRW estimates that well over 100,000 of North Sinai’s roughly 450,000 residents have been displaced or otherwise left the region since 2013.

HRW said that the Egyptian military continued in home demolitions and forced evictions during the armed conflict in the North Sinai governorate, stressing that it is a violation of international humanitarian law or the laws of war and likely amounts to war crimes. HRW also pointed out that the army has also razed, ruined, and closed off approximately 6,000 hectares of farmland, mostly since mid-2016.

On the other hand, the regime has provided little information beyond broad claims in the media that the evictions and demolitions were needed for security in the protracted fight with Wilayat Sina’s armed group, a local Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate. Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province) launched attacks against military targets and civilians; although the army has fought against it for years, its campaigns did not succeed in stopping these armed groups.

The army campaigns resulted in thousands of evictions and demolitions. HRW confirmed that it appears to violate the laws of war, which prohibit such actions except for absolute military necessity or to ensure the civilians’ security. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said that, “Over the past seven years in North Sinai, the Egyptian army has unlawfully evicted tens of thousands of residents, destroying their homes, farms, and livelihoods.” The demolitions and evictions reflect an abusive official mentality that dismisses Sinai residents’ well-being, which is key to the region’s security and stability. The authorities did not formally designate the coordinates of the areas to be razed without giving specific reasons and without setting a fair compensation process.

HRW documented that since late 2017, the military has razed property to create a buffer zone in the city of al-Arish and to complete another in Rafah. It has also destroyed hundreds of homes outside these buffer zones. HRW in 2015 and 2018 documented extensive home demolitions in North Sinai beginning in 2013. Until early 2018, the army mainly evicted people from residential areas in and around Rafah city, on the border with Gaza and Israel.

The majority of families evicted since late 2017, as well as hundreds (likely thousands) of families whose properties have been demolished since 2013, are yet to receive compensation. Al-Sisi’s regime offered no clear plans for when evicted residents can return home or indicated whether it has any such plans. The analysis of a series of dozens of high-resolution commercial satellite images recorded between December 4, 2017, and July 1, 2020, found that during that period, the military demolished about 4,000 buildings in and around al-Arish city. The demolition operations were mainly to build a buffer zone surrounding the formerly civilian al-Arish airport south of the city, used since 2013 for military purposes. Satellite imagery recorded in December 2020 showed continuing demolition in the Rafah area. Most of the demolished buildings in al-Arish have been residential or commercial buildings, almost 3,500 of them destroyed in 2018 alone. This policy was applied widely after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he would “use extreme violence and a truly brute force” in Sinai following an attack on the airport in December 2017.

The regime’s forces then escalated its operations, including imposing severe restrictions on movement that drove thousands of residents to the edge of a humanitarian crisis between February and May 2018. Earlier, possibly as early as 2014, the army demolished about 1,500 buildings in al-Arish. HRW analysis of satellite imagery found that of the roughly 5,500 buildings demolished in al-Arish since 2014, over 2,000 were located outside the security perimeter. Eyewitnesses said the army was demolishing the homes of suspected members of Wilayat Sina’ or their relatives. These extensive demolitions contradict the North Sinai governor’s statement in January 2018 that the demolitions “will not touch al-Arish city.”

The Egyptian regime did not announce any official decrees that mandate or regulate the evictions in or around al-Arish city or specify compensation since 2013. The poorer evictees usually find no alternative but to build shacks in new makeshift communities. However, the army destroyed about 700 shacks and temporary structures within the al-Arish buffer zone and dozens of shacks outside it. The military frequently claims that these makeshift communities are infiltrated by armed groups.

Analysis of other satellite imagery recorded between August 2013 and August 2020 found that almost all farmland within the airport buffer zone, about 1,800 hectares, had been likely razed, as well as 800 hectares of farmland in and around al-Arish city, mostly between August 2016 and August 2019. Based on imagery analysis, the army also razed, ruined, and closed off 3,500 hectares of farmland in and around Rafah, particularly between August 2016 and August 2019. Residents on the ground corroborated this analysis. The regime kept silent amid a strict information blackout on Sinai events, including the prohibition of independent reporting. Egyptian officials routinely deny the forced nature of evictions there. Pro-government media usually uses “relocated” or “affected” to refer to evicted residents.

General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said in October 2019 “We didn’t evict anyone … We gave residents money and razed the buildings and farms because it’s national security,” adding that the government “paid billions” in compensation. The military’s home demolitions and forced evictions have been the main grievance of North Sinai residents, who have also experienced other serious abuses and war crimes at the hands of both the military and armed groups. HRW called on the regime to “end abusive evictions and demolitions, accelerate fair, transparent compensation for everyone possible, and provide assurances that evicted residents can return home as soon as and whenever possible.”