The Egyptian military’s continuing home demolitions and forced evictions during the armed conflict in North Sinai governorate are violations of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, and likely amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
Between late 2013 and July 2020, the army destroyed at least 12,350 buildings, mostly homes, most recently in the al-Arish area. The army has also razed, ruined, and closed off approximately 6,000 hectares of farmland, mostly since mid-2016. The government has provided little information beyond broad claims in the media that the evictions and demolitions were needed for security in the protracted fight with the armed group Wilayat Sina’, a local Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliate responsible for attacks against military targets and civilians. Thousands of these evictions and demolitions appear to violate the laws of war, which prohibit such actions except for absolute military necessity or to ensure the security of the civilians involved. War crimes are serious violations of international humanitarian law, committed with criminal intent.
“Over the past seven years in North Sinai, the Egyptian army has unlawfully evicted tens of thousands of residents, destroying their homes, farms, and livelihoods,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The demolitions and evictions reflect an abusive official mentality that dismisses the well-being of Sinai residents, which is key to the region’s security and stability.”
Since late 2017, the military has razed property to create a buffer zone in the city of al-Arish and to complete another in Rafah. It has also destroyed hundreds of homes outside these buffer zones. Much of the destruction proceeded without formally designating the coordinates of the areas to be razed, without giving specific reasons, and without setting a fair compensation process. The majority of families evicted since late 2017, as well as hundreds – likely thousands – of families whose properties have been demolished since 2013, have yet to receive compensation. The government offered no clear plans for when evicted residents can return home or indicated whether it has any such plans.
Human Rights Watch in 2015 and 2018 documented extensive home demolitions in North Sinai beginning in 2013. Until early 2018, the army mainly evicted people from residential areas in and around the city of Rafah, on the border with Gaza and Israel.
Recent analysis of a time series of dozens of high-resolution commercial satellite images recorded between December 4, 2017, and July 1, 2020, found that during that period the military demolished about 4,000 buildings in and around al-Arish city, mainly to build a buffer zone surrounding the formerly civilian al-Arish airport south of the city, used since 2013 for military purposes.
Satellite imagery recorded in December 2020 showed continuing demolition in Rafah area. Most of the demolished buildings in al-Arish appear to have been residential or commercial buildings, almost 3,500 of them destroyed in 2018 alone, after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he would “use extreme violence and a truly brute force” in Sinai following an attack on the airport in December 2017. The military then escalated its operations, including imposing severe restrictions on movement that drove thousands of residents to the edge of a humanitarian crisis between February and May 2018. Earlier, possibly as early as 2014, the army had demolished about 1,500 buildings in al-Arish.
Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery found that of the roughly 5,500 buildings demolished in al-Arish since 2014, over 2,000 were located outside the security perimeter. Media reports and witnesses who spoke previously with Human Rights Watch said the army was demolishing homes of suspected members of Wilayat Sina’ or their relatives. These extensive demolitions contradict the North Sinai governor’s statement in January 2018 that the demolitions “will not touch al-Arish city.”
Human Rights Watch found no record since 2013 of official decrees that mandate or regulate the evictions in or around al-Arish city or specify compensation.
In addition, between December 2017 and July 2020, the army destroyed about 700 shacks and temporary structures within the al-Arish buffer zone, and dozens of shacks outside it. The military frequently claims that these makeshift communities are infiltrated by armed groups. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch, and quasi-official statements and media reports show, that poorer evictees usually find no alternative but to build shacks in new makeshift communities.
Analysis of other satellite imagery recorded between August 2013 and August 2020 found that almost all farmland within the airport buffer zone, about 1,800 hectares, had been likely razed, as well as 800 hectares of farmland in and around al-Arish city, mostly between August 2016 and August 2019. Based on imagery analysis, the army also razed, ruined, and closed off 3,500 hectares of farmland in and around Rafah, particularly between August 2016 and August 2019. Residents on the ground corroborated this analysis.
The authorities did not respond to questions Human Rights Watch sent on January 11 and 26, 2021 to the Cabinet office, the Defense Ministry, and the State Information Service. Amid a strict information blackout on Sinai events, including prohibition of independent reporting, Egyptian officials routinely deny the forced nature of evictions there, and pro-government media uses “relocated” or “affected” to refer to evicted residents. “We didn’t evict anyone … We gave residents money and razed the buildings and farms because it’s national security,” President al-Sisi said in October 2019, adding that the government “paid billions” in compensation.
Human Rights Watch documented previously that as of mid-2018 the military had destroyed at least 6,850 buildings in Rafah city. Satellite imagery as recent as December 2020 shows that demolitions continued outside the buffer zone south and west of Rafah city. Human Rights Watch found official lists in July 2020 indicating that at least 7,460 buildings have been surveyed and demolished inside the Rafah buffer zone alone.
Human Rights Watch reviewed media reports and official statements that, together with accounts of four displaced families interviewed jointly by Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an independent organization, support previous Human Rights Watch findings that the compensation process has been opaque, slow, and lacking independent review or appeal mechanisms. Thousands of people were never listed for compensation or have yet to receive any.
The military’s home demolitions and forced evictions have been a main grievance of North Sinai residents, who have also experienced other serious abuses and war crimes at the hands of both the military and armed groups. Whether in peacetime or war, international human rights law generally prohibits forced evictions and home demolitions unless in exceptional situations and with proper consultation, enough notice, fair compensation, and redress mechanisms, all of which the Egyptian government has largely failed to provide.
“The Egyptian government should end abusive evictions and demolitions, accelerate fair, transparent compensation for everyone possible, and provide assurances that evicted residents can return home as soon as and whenever possible,” Stork said.