The Egyptian authorities must halt the arbitrary demolition of hundreds of homes and mass forced evictions underway in Rafah, North Sinai in order to create a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip, Amnesty International said amid signs that the operation may be expanded.
“The scale of the forced evictions has been astonishing; the Egyptian authorities have thrown more than 1,000 families out of their homes in just a matter of days, flouting international and national law. Shocking scenes have emerged of homes in Rafah being bulldozed, bombed, with entire buildings reduced to piles of rubble and families forcibly evicted,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
At least 800 homes have been destroyed with an estimated 1,165 families forcibly evicted from their homes since the Egyptian military began clearing the area days after a deadly attack on a military checkpoint in North Sinai that killed at least 33 soldiers on 24 October 2014, according to official statements.
The authorities have proceeded with the evictions completely ignoring key safeguards required under international law including consultation with residents, adequate prior notice, sufficient compensation for losses and granting alternative housing to those who cannot provide for themselves, rendering the evictions unlawful.
On the same day as the deadly attacks, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a state of emergency in North Sinai, between Al Arish and Rafah and imposed a curfew between 17:00 to 7:00 in the area. Anyone who breaks the curfew could face up to 15 years in prison.
Plans to extend the buffer zone by another 500 meters in width announced by Egyptian officials have raised fears that forced evictions could increase in the coming weeks.
“Plans for expanding the buffer zone must not include further forced evictions. The human rights of the residents in North Sinai cannot just be trampled on in the name of security,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The home demolitions are being carried out in the context of increasing attacks by armed groups targeting the security forces in North Sinai. At least 238 members of the security forces have been killed there since 3 July 2013, according state media reports.
During the same period, the military have conducted several military operations in North Sinai targeting armed groups. According to state officials, ordinary residents were caught in the middle and killed in clashes between the army and the armed groups. Scores of suspected members of armed groups were also killed in the same period, according to military sources.
While the authorities have every right to secure the country’s borders and a duty to protect any individual on its territories, they must do so in a manner that upholds their obligations under international human rights law.
Residents told Amnesty International that many of those forcibly evicted by the operation had only received paltry compensation. According to the governor of North Sinai those evicted receive a 900EGP ($125) to help cover rent for three months until they can get full compensation. The governor also added that families will receive additional compensation for the loss of their houses ranging between 700 EGP /($ 97) and 1200 EGP / ($167) per square meter but residents told Amnesty International that this is far from enough to replace their homes.
Days after the checkpoint attack on 29 October, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab issued a decree by law (no 1975/2014) to create a buffer zone and evacuate the area in Rafah. Article three of this law stipulates that anyone who refuses to leave their home is to be forcibly evicted, contravening both international law and the Egyptian constitution which strictly prohibits forced evictions.
Many residents told Amnesty International they received no official notification of their eviction and heard about the 48-hour ultimatum to leave their homes on the news.
“I was never notified about the eviction plans, I only heard about it on TV. Not a single official approached me or my family to inform us how to apply for compensation,” one resident told Amnesty International.
Another said: “I only knew that I had to leave my house when a bulldozer demolished the external fence of my house. A military officer then told me that I had to leave immediately as the house would be demolished the next day. The area around my house was swarming with armoured vehicles and tanks, there were also helicopters flying overhead”.
Residents also said they had witnessed their neighbours being forcibly evicted after the military threatened them using dogs.
“My neighbours refused to leave. I saw them arguing with military officers, then soldiers with dogs raided the house and the family had to flee. Who can say no to the military with their heavy weapons? Their house was later demolished with all the furniture and family stuff inside it,” one resident said.
“In their bid to wipe out the threat posed by armed groups in Sinai, Egypt’s authorities have entirely disregarded their duties towards residents in the area,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Although residents have been living in the area for generations they expressed concerns that they will face difficulties obtaining the government compensation given they do not own the land and do not have official documents proving their ownership. Land in Sinai is considered state property and private ownership is prohibited.
Apart from the financial consequences the demolitions have had a deep psychological impact on residents. Following Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel, Rafah town was split into two parts. Many who live on the Egyptian side of Rafah have relatives on the Palestinian side and are now being forced to move far away from them.
Sinai fast evolving into ‘black hole’
A media blackout has also been imposed throughout North Sinai to block reporting of the demolitions and forced evictions or any other military operations.
Journalists told Amnesty International that it has been difficult to report on violations in Rafah due to the curfew in place which seriously hinders their freedom to move around.
“Even if you reach the residents they refuse to speak because they are terrified the army will persecute or ill-treat them,” one reporter told Amnesty International.
A new draft law prohibiting reporting news about the military is being reviewed by the State Council, pending approval by the cabinet. The law prohibits the publication of any news about the military or any army documents or statistics without prior written consent, effectively exempting them from media scrutiny.
Anyone found violating the law would face up to five years in prison. The law imposes even harsher penalties of up to 15 years in prison if the “crime” is committed during a war or while a state of emergency has been declared.
“This law would represent a serious blow to press freedom in Egypt. The media remains one of the few ways that residents can freely report injustice or abuses by the authorities. Sinai is fast evolving into a black hole where human rights violations are committed without fear of exposure,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The Egyptian government has an appalling record of trying civilians before military courts including journalists covering Sinai. Ahmed Abu Deraa, a correspondent for Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, was arrested in September 2013, and Mohamed Sabry a freelance journalist was arrested in January 2013 while working on a story for the Reuters news agency. Both received six-month suspended prison sentences after military trials.
Under a new law passed last month key public properties are considered military institutions and any offences against these will be dealt with by military courts. The law will pave the way for mass military trials of civilians including peaceful protestors, university students and possibly journalists.
Since July 2013 the military have conducted several operations against what the authorities describe as “militant” groups active in Sinai.
Attacks by armed groups targeting the security forces in North Sinai have increased in recent months with at least 238 security officers killed in Sinai since 3 July 2013, according to official statements.
The killing of at least 33 soldiers at the Qaram Al-Qawadis checkpoint in North Sinai on 24 October 2014 was the deadliest attack on the military since July 2013. The armed group Ansar Bait al-Maqdishas has claimed responsibility for this attack and other attacks targeting the military. At least 22 members of armed groups have been killed and 193 arrested in operations by Egypt’s security forces carried out following the attack according to a military spokesperson.
The North Sinai governor, Major General Abdel Fattah Harhour, stated in a TV interview on 21 November that around 1165 families living in the area have been evicted from 802 houses that were demolished in order to establish the buffer zone. He added an area 500 meters wide and 13,800 meters long (13.8 Km) extending west of Rafah was cleared. He mentioned the width of the area could be extended to 5 Km in order to destroy tunnels leading to Gaza that are 1750 meters long.
Forced evictions are defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body overseeing the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Egypt is a state party as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection. The committee, which reviewed the human rights record of Egypt last year, expressed concerns about widespread forced evictions in the country.