Egypt begins clearing Gaza border area

Smoke rises after a house was blown up during a military operation by Egyptian security forces in the Egyptian city of Rafah near the border with southern Gaza Strip Oct. 29, 2014.

Smoke rises after a house was blown up during a military operation by Egyptian security forces in the Egyptian city of Rafah near the border with southern Gaza Strip Oct. 29, 2014.

Egypt began establishing a buffer zone on Wednesday, clearing residents from its border with the Gaza Strip following some of the worst anti-state violence since President Mohammad Mursi was overthrown last year, Reuters reported.

A day after being ordered by the army to move, many in the area had already packed their belongings and begun to leave when an announcement from Cairo made the eviction official, the agency said.

“If any resident resists leaving the area in a cordial manner, their property … will be forcibly seized,” the agency quoted a decree signed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb.

Gen. Abdel Fattah Harhour, the governor of increasingly lawless northern Sinai region, told journalists the departing residents would be compensated for their lost homes.

Egypt declared a state of emergency in the border area after at least 33 security personnel were killed on Friday in two attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, a remote but strategic region bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal.

It also accelerated plans to create a 500-meter deep buffer zone by clearing houses and trees and destroying tunnels it says are used to smuggle arms from Gaza to militants in Sinai.

A teacher at a border area school said the government, which approved the buffer zone plan at its cabinet meeting on Wednesday, should have given residents more notice and compensated them before asking them to leave.

“What is happening will reduce people’s love for their nation and make them lose trust in the government,” said the teacher, who declined to be identified.

One resident said people in the area had been given three options: money to compensate for their property, an apartment in a nearby village or a plot of land on which to build.

Each displaced family is due to receive 900 Egyptian pounds ($125) to help pay for three months’ rent elsewhere, Harhour said, while compensation for lost property is being calculated.
Increasing army control

Border residents say about 680 houses are set to be demolished. Security forces have previously destroyed about 200 houses on the border after discovering entrances inside to smuggling tunnels leading into the Gaza Strip.

Security sources said residents living within 300 meters of the border were being evicted in the first phase of the plan. The next phase will cover another 200 meter-deep strip.

Residents of Sinai, which has long been neglected by the state, say they rely on the tunnels for their livelihoods. But Egyptian security forces see them as a security threat and regularly destroy them.

As well as clearing a border strip, Egypt has expanded the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians who block roads or damage state facilities and has authorized the army to help guard roads, bridges, oil fields and other public installations.

No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack but similar operations have been claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Egypt’s most active Sinai-based Sunni militant group.

Officials say militants operating in Sinai are inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda offshoot now targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

A commander from Ansar has told Reuters that ISIS has advised it on operating more effectively.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Mursi last year, has since cracked down on the former president’s Muslim Brotherhood, banning it and jailing thousands of its members.

Militant attacks in Sinai have increased since Mursi’s overthrow. The Brotherhood, which says it is a peaceful movement, has distanced itself from the violence and condemned Friday’s attack.

 
 
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