Egyptian forces have evicted about 3,200 families in a campaign of mass demolitions on the border with the Gaza Strip in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The New York-based rights group said Egypt’s official plan for the buffer zone in the turbulent North Sinai area would involve clearing the entire border town of Rafah, home to 78,000 people.
Families have been expelled with only 48 hours notice since demolitions began in July 2013 and have received mostly inadequate compensation for their homes and none for their farmland, the group charged.
The Egyptian government said that anti-terrorist operations in Rafah and surrounding areas were being carried out in compliance with international human rights law and in consultation with local residents.
Work to complete a replacement town called New Rafah is currently under way, the government said.
Satellite images provided by Human Rights Watch showed entire blocks of buildings in the Rafah area razed to the ground.
The actions “violated protections for forcibly evicted residents that are laid out in United Nations and African conventions to which Egypt is a party and may also have violated the laws of war,” the rights group said.
“Destroying homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director, argued.
Egyptian authorities are combatting an increasingly dangerous insurgency in the area.
The main Sinai militant group, which now calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State extremist organization, has carried out repeated deadly attacks on security forces as well as killings of alleged collaborators.
Security forces have said the clearing of a kilometre-wide strip along the border with Gaza is necessary to eliminate smuggling tunnels used by the militants.
The government said that limited areas near the border had been evacuated and most residents had opted to receive financial compensation.
Despite the threat of terrorism, authorities were ensuring the regular supply of fuel and essential services to areas of North Sinai where the militants operate, as well as providing residents with medical insurance, a statement from the cabinet said.
Human Rights Watch said media reports and some official statements suggested that any weapons being smuggled through the tunnels were being brought from Egypt into Gaza, and not the other way around.
Egyptian authorities announced the demolition of buildings in an initial 300-metre-wide border strip in October after a militant attack killed 30 troops. They later said the buffer zone would be extended to a kilometre from the border.
Human Rights Watch said the area covered by an official decree issued in October in fact covered a much wider area of 78 square kilometres and that demolitions in the area started as early as July 2013 after the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
Egyptian authorities have frequently objected to Human Rights Watch reports, accusing the organization of supporting terrorism.
The military said it is currently engaged in a major operation in Sinai and has killed more than 400 militants since September 7.
Information from Sinai is hard to verify because of reporting restrictions in the area, and a recently passed anti-terrorism law bans the publication of accounts that contradict official military statements concerning terrorist incidents.
On September 13, security forces killed eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptian tourism workers in the country’s Western Desert after mistaking them for militants.