Egypt has in recent days begun the second stage of creating a buffer zone between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
The current zone is being expanded from 500 meters to a kilometer, which means the destruction of some 1,200 homes in Egyptian Rafah. However, The Times of Israel has learned, there will be additional stages, which will ultimately expand the buffer zone to between 1,500 and 2,000 meters. The plan will result in the eviction of hundreds of families from the area, initially to El-Arish and in the future to New Rafah, a suburb of sorts that is to be built next to the current Rafah, and New Ismailiya, which will be built near the existing city on the banks of the Suez Canal.
These buffer zones are meant to help the Egyptian military in its fight against the fundamentalist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group, which has recently joined the Islamic State, at least symbolically. The army’s operation in the Sinai has been continuous in recent months, with 16-17 Egyptian battalions operating in the peninsula. The forces include commando, armored, and infantry units.
By the army’s estimates, the operation is bearing fruit, and has forced dozens of jihadis to flee the Sinai for Libya. There has also been a sharp decline in terrorism in the Sinai, and what activity remains is concentrated in the northeastern corner of the peninsula, in Rafah and Sheikh Zaid.
Egyptian intelligence has specific information on assistance that Sinai terrorists have been receiving from the Gaza Strip. Many activists trained in Gaza, and received arms there that they have been using against Egyptian forces.
That is the source of the urgency around creating the buffer zone: the goal is to cut the jihadis off from their Gaza supply route. On Monday Egyptian media reported on a jihadist cell that enjoyed considerable help from Hamas, and tried to infiltrate Sinai through tunnels. Most of the tunnels aren’t open, but occasionally smugglers on both sides of the border manage to build a new one. The Egyptian army recently uncovered a 1,700-meter passage.
Cairo has received cooperation from residents of Egyptian Rafah, even though locals are only being given a couple of hundred dollars for every home destroyed in the process of creating the buffer zone.
Egyptian intelligence also recently identified another smuggling route other than the tunnels — the sea. Though there is a fence stretching out to sea along the Sinai-Egypt border, smugglers in Zodiac boats have been bypassing it to reach the beaches on both sides.
Most of these boats are carrying components used to build rocket launchers, and explosive materials. The rockets themselves are also being assembled by the Sinai jihadis.
Construction of the initial 500-meter (550-yard) buffer zone along 10 kilometers (six miles) of the border comes after an October 24 suicide bombing that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers. After that incident, Egypt declared a three-month emergency in parts of the northern Sinai.
The Rafah crossing is Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world not controlled by Israel.
Jihadist attacks against Egyptian security forces have increased since the army ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last year.
AFP contributed to this report.