Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims Egyptian authorities began home demolitions in North Sinai at least a year before they were officially authorized, and abused the rights of citizens in carrying out forced evictions.
The New York-based rights organization slammed the eviction of thousands of civilians in North Sinai in their report, “Look for another homeland: Forced evictions in Egypt’s Rafah,” released on Tuesday.
The report documents and investigates the demolition of over 3,000 civilian residences since they were authorized in October 2014, as well as an additional 540 buildings, which they claim were demolished in the 16 months between Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and the official decree.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb ordered, in October 2014, the clearing of an area of 79 kilometers along the Egyptian border with Gaza, to create a buffer zone against an escalating armed insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
The decree followed a major attack by the armed Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province against security forces at Karm al-Qawadees checkpoint in October 2014, which killed at least 31 soldiers and officers. It also led authorities to declare a state of emergency in the troubled North Sinai governorate, and a strict curfew.
Yet HRW said authorities had their sights set on demolitions at least a year before the October 2014 decree. The organization claimed that satellite footage they obtained shows Egyptian authorities demolishing civilian buildings in areas far away from the designated buffer zone. This process, they asserted, is likely to have started after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
HRW claims that at least 50 of the 540 buildings demolished prior to October 2014 were more than a kilometer from the border.
Governor Harhour contradicted these figures, claiming that 122 homes were demolished prior to the decree, and a further 2,715 afterwards. About 3,200 families have lost their homes, according to the government,” HRW said.
A few hours after the report was released, the Ministry of Social Solidarity published compensation guidelines for families affected by “terrorist operations in Sinai” in the official Gazette.
The compensation amounts determined should be dispensed within the next six months and range from LE600 to LE900 for families in great need. Those evicted who already receive pensions will receive LE300 to LE900, according to the stipulations, and depending on the size of each family.
Higher compensations have reportedly been allocated to families who still live in their homes in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.
The ministry also declared the formation of a committing tasked with evaluating property damage and the amount of compensation each family will receive.
According to media reports cited by HRW, around 3600 people, including civilians, security forces and militants, have been killed in the ongoing conflict between the military and armed groups in Sinai, 73 percent of them after the October 2014 decree. This is a war in which civilians have consistently been caught in the crossfire.
According to international humanitarian law, the Egyptian military has the right to destroy tunnels used for smuggling arms, can respond to attacks on its security forces and can take preventative measures against such attacks. However, HRW maintains large-scale evictions and home demolitions do not meet international requirements for engagement.
“The demolitions made no distinction between tunnels and civilian homes, and less-destructive methods could have effectively restricted, and in fact had reportedly restricted, tunnel smuggling,” HRW asserted.
Egypt is also bound by the right to housing, laid out by the United Nations, obliging consultation with civilians before evictions, adequate and reasonable notice, information on future plans for the land and legal aid. HRW quoted residents who claimed that none of these measures have been applied in Sinai.
HRW blamed the Egyptian government for a number of violations, including: no proper consultation or notification for evicted civilians, unfair compensation and coerced concession of property, lack of temporary housing and inadequate assistance, no compensation for lost incomes and the interruption of child education.
Despite promises from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that civilians would be compensated in millions of pounds, HRW quoted residents who claimed that they didn’t even receive enough to buy properties similar to those demolished.
“Residents were coerced to sign a form that falsely stated they had voluntarily given their property to the state and pledged to not build again within the buffer zone. Rafah City Council employees would not give families their compensation checks if they did not sign the form,” HRW claimed.
The HRW report contains accounts of a number of confrontations with the military upon eviction. In one such incident, an elderly woman, whose house was about to be demolished, urged a military officer to wait until her male relatives arrived in order to remove her belongings. The officer responded: “Not a problem, we’ll blow it up with whatever’s inside, you don’t have to take a thing.”
Elderly women in particular mourned the loss of olive trees that were destroyed in the demolitions. Hajja Zainab, whose testimony was included in the report, said: My mother told me: ‘[Our olive] tree is your responsibility. I fed you from it and raised you on it. Even in times of war, we lived from its oil when nobody could find food.’ Now there’s nothing I can do, but hold the tree and kiss it and say, ‘Forgive me, mom, what can I do’.”
The report recommended that Egyptian authorities halt the process of mass demolitions and evictions, properly compensate evicted civilians and consider less destructive ways to demolish the tunnels that do not involve violating the rights of civilians.