El-Arish, EGYPT (AFP) — Abu Mahmoud was given just eight hours to leave his home on the Egyptian side of the divided Gaza border town of Rafah before authorities began demolishing it to create a buffer zone.
Not only are he and others displaced like him angry, they also say they are often abused and branded traitors and “terrorists” because they come from the lawless frontier in north Sinai.
Militants have stepped up attacks against troops inside Egypt since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
The buffer zone with the Palestinian Islamist-controlled enclave is Cairo’s latest security measure to stem jihadists reportedly infiltrating from across the border.
More than 800 homes are being demolished and 1,100 families displaced to build the 500-meter (yard) wide and 13.5-kilometer (about eight-mile) long buffer zone in North Sinai province.
“Civilians accuse us of being traitors when they learn we are from northern Sinai,” said Abu Mahmoud, who declined to give his real name for fear of reprisals.
“Officers treat us badly at security checkpoints on the road between Cairo and Ismailiya. And we have to submit to body searches when they see that our cars are registered in North Sinai,” he said.
Rocked by insurgency
He has now moved with his family to North Sinai’s capital of El-Arish, and said people had broken the windows of North Sinai-registered cars in Ismailiya and in the Nile Delta province of Gharbiya.
The military began demolishing houses along the border with Gaza in late October after militants killed at least 30 soldiers in a checkpoint attack in North Sinai, a region rocked by insurgency since Morsi’s ouster.
Egypt’s deadliest militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, claimed the attack and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
This week it released a video of the October attack which began with suicide bomber driving a bomb-laden truck into the checkpoint.
Ansar gunmen then storm the checkpoint to kill survivors and make off with their weapons.
The government hopes the buffer zone will isolate the militants who say they attack the security forces in retaliation for the government crackdown on Morsi supporters in which at least 1,400 people have been killed in street clashes.
The authorities also hope that the buffer zone will neutralise hundreds of illegal underground tunnels connecting the Egyptian side of Rafah with Gaza.
Such tunnels are often used for smuggling weapons and militants, and the army says it has already destroyed more than 1,600 of them.
The authorities charge that Palestinian militants from Hamas and other groups are helping jihadists to fight Egypt’s security forces, which the Palestinian groups deny.
The buffer zone should deal a major blow to the militants, interior ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif said.
“After the creation of the buffer zone, they are now isolated,” he told AFP.
Sissi offers compensation
Abu Mahmoud’s brother, Mohammed, accused Egyptian media of portraying the people of North Sinai negatively by publishing “hate speeches” against them, “as if all the residents of this region are terrorists”.
Although President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi himself has apologized to the people displaced by the new buffer zone, and has even promised them compensation, few El-Arish residents have any empathy towards those from Rafah.
They believe people from Rafah and other border towns have amassed fortunes by smuggling goods and weapons through the tunnels, especially since Israel imposed a blockade on the Palestinian enclave in 2006.
The government said that those who owned houses where the entrances to such tunnels were discovered will not receive compensation.
Those displaced “have taken precautions and have long since bought land in the province of Sharqiya, and in Ismailiya” or in upscale areas of El-Arish, charged a retired civil servant in the town who gave his name as Mohammed.
Even some residents of Rafah agree this has happened.
Among them are “millionaires who don’t need any compensation from the state”, said Ahmed, who moved to El-Arish from Rafah last year.
“A labourer transporting goods through the tunnels earned between 1,000 and 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($140 to $210, 110-165 euros) a day. Imagine how much a tunnel owner made,” he added.