Sinai Peninsula: Where Egypt’s 'war on terror' targets civilians

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Egyptians carry the coffin of a person who was killed in El-Arish, capital of north Sinai, on July 14, 2014, after militants fired mortar shells last night at a military base. (Photo: AFP-STR)

By: Mohammed Salem

Published Monday, July 28, 2014

After each attack in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, everybody starts talking about the need to impose security but the warnings go unheeded and the attacks continue. Palestinians were accused of perpetrating the latest attack in the city of al-Arish that led to dozens of victims among civilians, the army and the police force but no culprits were caught. As the Egyptian government claims to be “making progress in its daily war on terror,” which has struck Sinai since the ousting of former Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi. It is the regular civilians living in Sinai who are increasingly suffering from what they describe as “more and more serious violations” against them.

Sinai – Sinai is heading towards the unknown. This is a fact the people of the peninsula know well, as lawlessness has become a reality exacerbated by the effects of the war on Gaza amid suspicious inaction on the part of official parties, which becomes evident after every incident.

Mohammed al-Sawarka, from the village of al-Shlak in southeast al-Arish, said security abuses targeting civilians in Sinai began with the start of military campaigns. This coincided with the crippling of governmental services and banks as communication networks and the Internet are cut off daily for about eight to 14 hours.

This was followed by the uprooting of thousands of olive trees in the area surrounding the international road from al-Arish to Rafah for a distance of 50 kilometers (31 miles) as well as the area located along the governorate’s airport road for a distance of 15 km (nine miles).

Sawarka told Al-Akhbar, the people tried to understand the reason for the uprooting of their trees by the army, but one of the officers fired over their heads saying, whoever complains will be seen as aiding the terrorists. He added: “We kept quiet even though these trees have been our only source of income for 40 years in light of the absence of the state in our region.”

Al-Akhbar went to the villages south of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah where the military campaigns take place. The driver who took us to east al-Arish did not hide his concern over making the trip. He said the army had arrested a journalist in the area, claiming he was a terrorist “because he was reporting on the suffering of the people.”

The driver fell silent for a little bit, as though trying to control his anxiety, before adding: “Since the outset of the military campaigns, we have been taking detours through the desert far from checkpoints. While the end of the roundabout route looms clearly near the villages of south al-Sheikh because of the effects of military vehicles, hundreds of dry olive trees appear on its sides.”

We arrive at the village of al-Lafitat located south of Sheikh Zuweid. The people say this village is evidence of the cruelty of the war on terror. It has been emptied of its residents who left after the army bombed it with Apache helicopters. In the middle of the village, you can see the health unit building which was targeted with artillery fire. In the parking lot, there is a burnt car that the people say belongs to the unit’s physician who was arrested by the army on charges of “treating takfiri individuals” injured during the military campaigns.

A resident called Suleiman said: “We used to think the army came to save us from the extremist ideology and terrorism. But we were surprised that they are two faces of the same coin.” He added that the army “came to kill life in our region.”

The man’s claim sounds logical as there is no sign of life in the village. Even animals were not allowed to stay. Apache helicopters bomb the village on an almost daily basis. Over 200 Hellfire missiles are launched per week.

Suleiman does not deny that there are extremist individuals in the village. “These militants are from the village but they fled as soon as the military campaigns began. The army is targeting peaceful people, forcing them to join the extremists.”

“The army is fighting terrorism with terrorism,” he added

He recounted how the army bombed one of the houses in the area last September. He said, “After the bombing, we found in the house the corpses of a mother and four children.”

“Will their relatives forget what happened?” he asked. “The children who see these injustices perpetrated by the state will one day carry arms against it.”

Local activists criticize security agencies for lacking a mechanism to mitigate the impact of security operations on innocent people. Promises of compensation made by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before he took office in one of his interviews in Cairo have not materialized. That is despite the fact that under-secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture in North Sinai had said in an interview that the crops damaged as a result of security campaigns have been accounted for. In the meantime, people talk about efforts made to ameliorate the effects of the war on terror.

According to eyewitnesses from North Sinai, the North Sinai security forces have closed five main squares in the cities of al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. They are al-Maleh and al-Nafoura Squares in al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, al-Joura Squares in the city of Sheikh Zuweid, and al-Masoura Square in Rafah. These measures are in addition to blocking major roads where security headquarters are located. The areas surrounding security agency headquarters, the Security Directorate of North Sinai, police stations, the governorate’s General Bureau and city councils have all been shut down.

The Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms issued a report about the Egyptian army’s operations in North Sinai in which it talked about “systematic violations committed by the Egyptian armed forces there.”

The report, titled “When crimes become mere numbers and statistics”, revealed that the field operations in North Sinai have resulted in the deaths of 200 people and detention of 1,500 more, as well as the demolition of more than 350 houses since July 3rd.

The report, whose publication coincided with the 32nd anniversary of the liberation of Sinai, said military operations in the area violate “the laws and legal principles which turns them into crimes against humanity.”

The people of Sinai believe that their situation is getting worse with continued military operations, according to Suleiman Hamdan from Sheikh Zuweid. He said, “Whenever the government promises to bring about development and end marginalization, the indiscriminate bombing of our homes increases.”

Political activist Said Atik described what is happening in Sinai as “a major scheme to sell the peninsula to known political parties at a price agreed upon by parties within Egypt.” But he stressed they will not allow such a scheme to pass, adding “the honorable people of Sinai” will unite against those who spread sedition and agitators.

Writer and political activist Masaad Abu Fajr said the only solution for stability in the Sinai is “implementing the agenda of the revolution immediately in this area” by electing political leaders, local councils and tribal elders. He also called for restructuring the Ministry of Interior whereby the Security Directorate of North Sinai follows the governor, stressing that if this is not done, “we will witness further deterioration.”

Protecting the lives of soldiers

A security source said that closing the squares and streets of the cities of North Sinai comes in conjunction with security measures to protect the lives of soldiers against terrorist attacks on different security stations.

The source pointed out that plots are implemented on the ground to separate Sinai from Egypt through the implementation of more bloody attacks, increasing the level of violence against residents and further kidnappings, in addition to killing citizens with police bullets and increasing the tension between the people and security forces. The source stressed that the solution will come only through the Egyptian people by turning the situation in Sinai into a public opinion issue and taking revolutionary decisions by developing the area immediately instead of relying on temporary solutions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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