Egypt has embarked on a significant widening of its buffer zone with the Gaza Strip, amid indications from the provincial governor that the entire border town of Rafah will eventually be razed and relocated.
The Egyptian government has expressed determination to choke off subterranean smuggling passages dug by the Palestinian militant group Hamas between Gaza and Rafah, a scruffy town that straddles the frontier.
A second phase of about 1,200 home demolitions -- meant to widen the buffer zone between the Gaza frontier and Egypt -- began late Thursday, state media reported Friday. The first phase, involving some 800 homes, commenced several months ago, following an end to summertime hostilities in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
The planned deepening of the zone along the nine-mile frontier from 500 yards to more than half a mile was announced by the government of President Abdel Fattah Sisi in November. This week, the provincial governor suggested the demolitions would eventually encompass the entire existing town, with residents relocated to “new Rafah.”
Egypt’s military has for months been battling an Islamist insurgency in northern Sinai, a confrontation that spiked after the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The current government said Morsi had allowed Islamist militant groups to flourish in the rugged Sinai peninsula during his year-long rule.
The Cairo government accuses Hamas, which dominates Gaza, of cooperating with militants on the Egyptian side of the frontier, something Hamas denies. Egypt’s moves to bottle up Hamas -- both through the destruction of smuggling tunnels and prolonged closures of the Rafah border crossing -- also largely dovetail with Israeli security interests.
The home demolitions exacerbate hardship for the already disadvantaged population of the northern Sinai, but the Sisi government has described the buffer zone as an important element in its anti-terror campaign. Residents have been promised compensation, but past payments have been described by some as slow in coming, and insufficient to relocate homes and businesses. Clans with branches on both sides of the frontier say their separation has been a painful one.
The government has started work building a community to the south of the existing town, though it so far lacks the infrastructure it needs to be habitable. The governor of North Sinai, Abdel-Fattah Marhour, told BBC Arabic that the buffer zone would eventually extend all the way to the border of the new town.
That has not been confirmed by the Sisi administration, but successive moves on the buffer zone have leaked out piecemeal, in an apparent bid to avoid an outcry.
Egypt announced it would set up the buffer zone after more than 30 members of its security forces were killed in an October militant attack, one of the largest single-incident losses of life in the peninsula in the last 18 months.