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4 days of isolation: Waiting for the start of Operation Sinai 2018
 
 

February 9 was just like any other Friday: Telecommunications and internet access to the entire North Sinai Governorate had been cut off since 7 am. Arish families were preparing to gather at grandparents’ houses for lunch. Military aircraft were hovering over the city, albeit in greater numbers than usual. There were also sounds of explosions, which local residents have grown accustomed to over the past five years.

At precisely 8:45 am, Armed Forces spokesperson Tamer al-Rifai announced the launch of Operation Sinai 2018, releasing communiqué 1 as a video of Armed Forces troops deployed by land and air to North Sinai to eradicate armed militants. A second communiqué followed at midday, where Rifai provided details on the operation. Only then did North Sinai residents, who had no way of communicating with the outside world, hear that they would suddenly, and indefinitely, be under fire as part of the open-ended “war on terror.”

The footage of military troops and aircraft carrying soldiers terrified residents.

At approximately 1 pm, telecommunications and internet access were restored. However, all social media websites were blocked. Some Arish residents received calls from loved ones reporting that they were stranded on the International Arish–Qantara Road. Others reported that they had been stranded at the western bank of the Suez Canal. All had been denied entry into Sinai.

A few hours after the first communiqué was released, it was announced that all North Sinai schools and universities had been closed “until further notice.” Gas stations within the city of Arish and on the international road leading to the city of Bir al-Abd were shut down in accordance with instructions from the security establishment. Security forces blocked the road into Sinai from the western bank of the Suez Canal, informing passengers that all ferry operations had been halted “until further notice” and prompting them to turn around, according to the relatives of North Sinai residents who called to inform their loved ones of the situation.

There are several access points into North Sinai and South Sinai: the Qantara dock, where one passenger ferry and one vehicle ferry operate; the Salam Bridge; Ferry dock number 6; the recently inaugurated Shahid Ahmed Mansi Bridge; and the Shahid Ahmed Hamdy Bridge in Suez. Some of these access points are usually open around the clock, and some are open during specific time windows. All, however, were closed on Friday.

Sinai was left with no access to the outside world, and cities within the governorate were thoroughly isolated from each other, creating an agonizing situation for local residents who have been striving to overcome abnormal measures as part of an operation that does not, to them, seem to be any different from the war on armed groups waged by the state five years ago.

Preparing for the worst: A shopping frenzy

By 4 pm on Friday, North Sinai locals were overcome with anxiety. Arish residents flocked to stores to purchase all the essential commodities they could in preparation for the worst: longstanding roadblocks that would not allow deliveries to the governorate.

By 6 pm, most groceries and food markets were nearly out of all essential items: eggs, dairy products, canned foods, rice and flour.

The owner of a central and popular Arish supermarket tells Mada Masr that people stocked up on dairy products to secure their children’s needs, as it is widely known that supply deliveries to North Sinai are made on Saturday and Tuesday. With the roads expected to be closed on the following Saturday, dairy products would not have been available again before the following Tuesday, and only in the event that vehicles would be allowed passage.

Mohamed Salama, an Arish resident and father of two, says that his priority was to secure milk for his small children. “Thank God. I managed to buy a dozen cartons of milk that will last us for a week,” he says, with some relief and joy.

Dozens of shoppers flooded the central Arish area of Attalawy, where wholesalers and vegetable stands are located. Before 8 pm, there were no goods and vegetables to be found in Attalawy. Similarly, stores in the western Arish neighborhood of Masaeed — which is home in large part to people not originally from the area and university students — were emptied.

Several Arish residents describe the atmosphere as terrifying: People were buying as much as they could of everything.

A vegetable vendor tells Mada Masr that vegetable shipments normally arrive in Arish every morning, except on Friday. Therefore, the vegetables sold on Friday “are usually saved by the vendors from the day before.” When hundreds of residents flocked to the markets on Friday, vendors were understocked. According to the vendor, all essential produce – such as tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, onions and eggplant – was entirely out of stock by Friday evening.

Some vegetable vendors and shop owners seized the opportunity to hike up the prices and maximize their profits.

Several Arish residents tell Mada Masr that merchants introduced unreasonable price increases, saying that tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers were sold at LE20 per kilo instead of LE15, 30-piece egg cartons at LE60, and chicken at LE40 per kilo. Prompted by the shortage, the Armed Forces distributed packages of essential items to residents in the north and central portions of the peninsula, according to the military spokesperson.

Stranded on the road

On Thursday morning, Khaled, 23, and his sister, 25, left Arish and headed to Cairo for her medical examination. With the examination finished, they tried to return home. But, shortly after midnight, they were back in Cairo.

At the West Qantara passenger ferry dock, dozens of men, women and children were waiting to cross but were turned away by the ferry’s security personnel.

“Everyone was waiting for the ferry to cross over to the eastern bank of the canal,” says Khaled. “As time went by, more and more people arrived. As of 2 pm on Friday, no one had crossed. We learned that a large military operation was underway and that passage to the eastern bank was prohibited.”

Khaled and his sister eventually opted to head back to Cairo, where they spent the night in a hotel. Others spent hours by the dock, hoping that transportation would be resumed.

All of Friday went by without a statement from the North Sinai Governorate to reassure residents, many of whom were becoming more and more anxious by the moment.

Meanwhile, with the Rafah Crossing and the international road connecting North Sinai towns both suddenly closed, dozens of Gazans who were exiting the strip or travelling back home through the Rafah Crossing were stranded in the cities of Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish.

A young man from the east-Arish area of Reissa recounts that the owner of a two-story rest stop and cafe took in most of the Palestinians who were stranded by the Reissa checkpoint, dedicating the upper floor to women and children and the cafe downstairs to men. There, the travelers stayed until morning.

One of the stranded Palestinian travelers estimated the number of families who spent the night in the Reissa area at 60, according to a report that the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper ran on stranded Palestinians.

Popular organization

In response to Sinai residents being stranded outside the governorate and Arish merchants exploiting the circumstances to enforce price hikes, groups of young Arish men formed crisis management committees to compensate for the lack of action by the North Sinai Governorate, its executive branch and the central government in the capital.

The young Arish men launched two initiatives: the Lagnet al-Ashreen and the Ahl Sina al-Guedaan. On their Facebook pages, both initiatives listed the numbers for helplines where complaints could be received and Sinai residents who are stranded outside the governorate could call for help.

Significantly, the two initiatives compiled all offers proffered by Sinai-locals residing outside the governorate to host those who were stranded. They also documented exploitation by merchants and vendors; shared information about specific plights – such as the need of those who were sick for transportation, or the needs of residents from remote areas, neighborhoods and villages for food products; and offered suggestions for navigating the crisis.

Many Arish residents say they were motivated by the popular efforts to help. In turn, some offered to drive those in emergency situations, as gas stations were shut down and taxis were no longer operating in the city. Some vegetable merchants, vendors and shop owners offered all of their produce and products at cost, and some bakers offered bread free of charge for ration card holders.

Saturday: An escalating crisis

When the daily curfew was lifted at 5 am on Saturday, bakeries quickly overflowed with people. A few hours later, Arish markets opened, but swaths of people were left to compete for a greatly understocked produce selection.

It was chaotic: men carrying jute bags of flour and rice. Others carried large bags of beans and pasta to their cars. A few vendors brought out meager supplies of produce – especially tomatoes and potatoes – every now and then, which would sell out within minutes.

Poultry was completely out of stock due to the blockade on the city’s entrance. Some well-to-do families bought the overpriced meat, while some families resorted to cheaper frozen meat.

Fish was more available. But the supply will not last long, as a 45-day ban on fishing off the Arish coast is being enforced.

A fisherman in the Abu Saqal area, home to a high population of fishermen, tells Mada Masr that the Egyptian Coast Guard, which normally oversees fishing operations in the Mediterranean, informed one of the senior fishermen in the area of the ban, which was enforced in parallel to the security raids on North Sinai.

For the fisherman, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the trouble is not with the ban, as much as it is with the fact that most fishermen had cast their nets into the water days ago and planned to haul them back in this week. And now, a storm is expected to hit within a few days, which may destroy the nets valued at LE50,000 each.

On Saturday morning, police forces put in place an unusually high number of arbitrary checkpoints along the coastal road in Arish and Assiut Street, instructing drivers to be home by nightfall and to remain indoors until Monday morning. At the city center, police at a random checkpoint stopped private cars and taxis and delivered the same instructions to passengers, according to Arish residents who received those warnings firsthand from commissioned officers.

That evening, security forces conducted a large-scale raid in the city center, according to eyewitnesses, who reported that, for 20 minutes, military and police vehicles passed along the main central Arish road to Rifai Square. There, conscripts and commissioned officers instructed all shop owners to shut down and evacuate the area until the raid came to an end.

The raid was concentrated in southern Arish neighborhoods. A curfew was announced, and police undertook an extensive search operation that carried on until Monday.

Sunday: A ghost town

Although the Governor of North Sinai denied that a curfew would be enforced on Sunday, residents adhered to the verbal instructions they had received from commissioned officers and security personnel at checkpoints.

On Sunday morning, the streets were empty — there were neither people, nor cars. Most stores were closed. Residents were in their homes. Every now and then, distant sounds of explosions were heard emanating from the southern areas of the city. Telecommunications were cut off, and internet access was unavailable from the early morning until 7 pm.

As time went by and people were besieged in their own cities, new crises emerged.

Students not originally from Sinai who attend businessman Hassan Rateb’s privately owned Sinai University wanted to leave the city, as the university had been closed by the security raid. But the only road out of the city was blocked, and no one was granted passage.

The university issued instructions to its students to head to the campus and register their names. The administration would then attempt to coordinate with the security apparatus. University administration also promised to provide all students who do not live in the dorms with accommodation and, if necessary and possible, with pocket money.

On Monday, the university released a detailed statement announcing that 143 students had been transported outside of Sinai, and that coordination with the security apparatus was underway to transport 650 others.

The North Sinai Governorate, on the other hand, called on students not from the area who attend public Arish universities, as well as students from North Sinai who attend schools outside the governorate, to register online. Governorate representatives would then coordinate their exit from the governorate.

For the young men organizing the crisis management initiatives, there are three crises which demand an urgent resolution. First, they say there is a need to compensate for the lack of treatment for North Sinai cancer patients who normally receive treatment outside the governorate. Second, they point to the child immunization campaign, which was not launched on Saturday as planned, given that gas stations were shut down, transportation was no longer available and several areas of the city were placed under security siege. Finally, they say something needs to be done to address food shortages in areas affected by the siege on Arish’s outskirts – including the villages of Zaree al-Kheir and Karam, parts of the neighborhood of Reissa, and the neighborhoods of the fourth Arish district where people with medical conditions and students who attend schools outside the governorate reside.

Joint Armed Forces and police raids commenced on Saturday in specific areas in Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish.

In Sheikh Zuwayed, the raids were notably conducted by police forces, who have been absent from the city the military took control in late 2015.

Several Sheikh Zuwayed residents tell Mada Masr that police personnel and commissioned officers are treating people well in their reappearance. According to the residents, the raids focus on gathering people’s personal information and searching houses.

The Armed Forces, on the other hand, raided the areas of Naga Shabana, Bilaa, Moqatta and Lafitat. Local sources say that the raids focused on partially destroyed houses, which had been abandoned by their former residents, with security sources conducting meticulous searches. According to the sources, two missiles struck an abandoned house and a middle school in the Rafah areas of Bilaa and Matalla.

In Arish, a joint police and military force surrounded all neighborhoods in the city’s southern fourth district. The siege began on Sunday evening and remains in effect as of the date of publishing.

According to residents of these areas, the mobile phones and tablets of all citizens were collected in large jute bags and then loaded onto pickup trucks and taken to the local Security Directorate General. Residents say commissioned officers told them that they could retrieve their devices from the directorate premises when the raid concluded.

Since the launch of the large-scale raid, three civilian injuries and one civilian death have been registered, according to a source within the North Sinai Health Directorate.

The injuries, according to the source, were caused by a missile that struck a house in the central Sinai area of Qusayima, where three children sustained minor injuries and were provided with first-aid onsite. On Sunday, Arish Hospital received the body of a young Sheikh Zuwayed man who had been shot by militants.

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