Burned Villages, Uprooted Olive Groves: Egypt Army in Sinai

Violent reprisals against civilians. Mass burnings of houses and automobiles. Local journalists imprisoned and their relatives shot dead. In the Sinai, Egyptian security forces are engaged in a small war against the local population.
In northern Sinai, local people refer to people from the faraway Nile Valley as ‘the Egyptians,’ and even in peacetime many seem to consider the Egyptian state an occupying force. A sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by the Egyptian army, as this report from Al-Akhbar makes clear.

On Saturday morning, the Egyptian army took control of the central telecom building in al-Arish and cut off all landlines, mobile phones, and Internet communications in this governorate of North Sinai.

The telecom outage lasted nearly 10 hours, following which the residents of the rest of the governorate learned that the army was launching a large-scale military operation in the border region. Nothing else was known. When communications were restored in the evening, an avalanche of screaming telephone calls, cries for help, came out of the affected area. Most recipients assumed that their callers were exaggerating about what was happening, and events in Sinai were not given much importance by the media.

A spokesperson for the Egyptian army took to Facebook to announce the results of the first day of the military campaign, writing that 107 homes were burned down along with a number of vehicles used by the terrorists in their operations. But the residents, while agreeing on some of these details, had a very different take on what was happening.

The war lasted three days. During the communication blackout, tanks and armored vehicles were moved in under cover from Apache attack helicopters, while media and relief personnel were barred from the area of operations.

Al-Akhbar only learned that the operations had ceased once it arrived in Sheikh Zuweid on Tuesday morning, September 10. Communications had returned, and the residents had not seen or heard the choppers that day. In a quick tour to examine the effects of the military campaign on the villages of al-Zuhair and al-Mokataa, two of several villages affected by the fighting, the extent of the devastation inflicted on civilian homes and vehicles soon became clear.

Al-Akhbar‘s field guide for the area told us that his relative, Hajj Salem Abu Draa, had been killed. Salem is a cousin of Sinai journalist Ahmad Abu Draa, who is being detained by the military. He was killed as he left the mosque following the dawn prayer, and his children were not allowed to retrieve his body until later that afternoon. We also learned that [another relative,]Umm Sulman Abu Draa, an elderly woman, was killed after a bullet pierced a wall in her home and struck her in the chest.

In nearby al-Mokataa, the Abu Munir mosque was turned to rubble after being hit by missiles, most likely from an Egyptian army Apache. Some locals explained why the mosque would be targeted, saying it was a meeting point for some militant groups. But no one could say for sure whether any militants had actually been holed up in the mosque during the attacks.

Dozens of residents gave their testimonies to Al-Akhbar about the collective and random punishment meted out on the population by the army, from the attacks on bystanders and civilians inside homes, to the burning of civilian cars for no apparent reason. One of the residents said the army stopped and searched him before sending him away and burning his car.

Not far from the charred remains of his car, a number of nearby houses had met a similar fate. Residents were forcibly evicted and their homes were searched. When the army did not find any contraband inside, they used cooking gas bottles to set fire to furniture and appliances, and also burned any cars parked in the yards. A taxi driver whose car was burned said he begged the army to arrest him and leave the vehicle to his children to be able to make a living and finish payments on the car, but that the army burned it anyway, while he watched.

The largest share of the catastrophe was reserved for the extremely impoverished residents of the area’s shanties. People were driven out before their shelters were set on fire although no contraband was found inside. Even the owners of expensive homes were not spared from aerial bombardment, destruction of property, and looting, despite the improbability that their lavish lifestyles were linked to radical Islamists.

Numerous eyewitnesses in the two villages reported that homes were looted of clothes, food, and even women’s jewelry. Olive trees were uprooted, pigeon towers smashed, and cattle slain. The army uprooted vast areas of olive groves south of al-Arish, supposedly to improve visibility in the area and secure it against infiltration. But these measures have resulted in losses of millions of Egyptian pounds, with many families losing their only source of livelihood.

Impact on the Armed Groups

Official army press releases have claimed that the military operations succeeded in eliminating dens of terrorism and criminal hideouts. However, these claims were shattered on Wednesday morning, when the military intelligence building in Rafah was destroyed in a double suicide attack. On Thursday, a takfiri group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group’s statement helped clarify the confusion that prevailed over whether [a different armed faction,]Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a Salafi jihadi group, was otherwise responsible for the Rafah bombing, as the latter had issued another statement on Wednesday announcing figures on the army’s casualties during the three-day operation.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’ statement was enclosed with a picture of a military Land Cruiser that the group claimed it had destroyed, in addition to a Hummer and three armored vehicles using explosive devices. The statement also confirmed that eight soldiers were killed, including six from Special Forces.

Accusing the Egyptian army of treason and collaboration with Israel is nothing new in the statements of Salafi jihadi groups in Sinai. What is new, however, is that the latest statement described the Egyptian military as “the apostate army.” The statement also boasted that the large-scale military campaign claimed the life of only one of the group’s members, who had run out of gas during a car chase. All of this prompted one resident of Mokataa to say, “They destroyed our homes, burned our cars, and left us with the members of the [militant]groups sticking out their tongues and telling us they were left unharmed.”

It should be noted that the villages which were attacked south of Sheikh Zuweid are more than 15 kilometers away from the Gaza tunnels northeast of Rafah; there is no possible connection between the tunnel smuggling and the bombing and burning of homes here.

[After Al Akhbar‘s visit, the Army attacks resumed.] Egyptian security forces confirmed that on Sunday, September 15, army attack helicopters bombed positions supposedly belonging to militant Islamists in villages south of Sheikh Zuweid. The sources added that the army started a new military operation against militant outposts in Sinai.

Ismail Iskandarani