Crippling The “Enemy” From Within?

In an effort to cripple an Islamic State-insurgency to their north, the Egyptian military has expelled thousands of families from their homes along the Sinai border with Gaza to create a ‘buffer zone’, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Egyptian military has been involved with fighting Ansar Bait al-Maqdis– an extremist jihadist group whose name translates to ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’–for two years. This group emerged after 2011 and has received tactical and financial support from ISIS after pledging its allegiance to the extremist network. Since that time hey have launched and claimed many attacks on Egyptian military personnel in an attempt to separate the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

The Egyptian military has sought to counter this threat by accelerating plans to create a ‘buffer zone’ between Egypt and Gaza along the Sinai Peninsula. It has planned, and is in the process of, demolishing buildings and the tunnel network underground in order to clamp down on the smuggling of weapons and financial support to the insurgency.

Initial reports estimated 800 homes demolished and 10,000 people evacuated. However, according to the HRW report, ‘Look for Another Homeland,’ approximately 3,255 homes, businesses and community buildings were demolished between July 2013 and August 2015. Entire towns have been evacuated countless displaced, many of whom have now lost their homes, farmlands and livelihoods, often with very little warning. The report details the stories of many of those being forced out of their homes with little compensation and no means to relocate, with commentators comparing the operation to a ‘scorched earth policy’.

HRW has cautioned Cairo that the disproportionate eviction of people could violate the rules of engagement, especially if the government could have utilised alternative, less lethal means to counter the security threats. They refer to the prohibitions that exist under international law against attacks on civilians (and their property), and the displacement of civilians in international law. The 84-page report indicates that tunnel-detecting systems are one such method which could have been used to avoid arbitrary destruction and eviction, and of which the US has trained the Egyptian military to use in the past. They have also criticised the lack of transparency afforded to journalists in covering the conflict. The human rights organisation has called for greater journalistic freedom to report and criticise the operation and wider public oversight in the notoriously closed off state.

The new Sisi administration has responded to the findings of the report by arguing it has not violated international law with respect to its counter-insurgency operations. The post-Morsi government, which has been vocal in its criticism of HRW, defended their actions by commenting that they maintained a policy of ‘not opening fire on a potential threat unless the source of threat imminently threatens security forces’ and has justified the buffer zone as integral to its campaign against the insurgents. Moreover, they have rejected claims by the report over its compensation, maintaining that they have adhered to requests for compensation in the form of cash over housing or land (at the citizens’ requests), and that they are in the process of providing new infrastructure designed to accommodate and absorb the displaced citizens.

Whatever the case, it is essential that Egypt avoid such aggressive actions which cause the displacement of large amounts of people for the sake of this buffer zone. HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson argued that

‘destroying homes, neighbourhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign’ and Egypt should re-examine the effectiveness of their campaign and consider alternatives or otherwise risk violating international humanitarian law.