SHAFAQNA – With bulldozers and dynamite, the Egyptian Army on Wednesday began demolishing hundreds of houses, displacing thousands of people, along the border with Gaza in a panicked effort to establish a buffer zone that officials hope will stop the influx of militants and weapons across the frontier.
The demolitions, cutting through crowded neighborhoods in the border town of Rafah, began with orders to evacuate on Tuesday and were part of a sweeping security response by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to months of deadly militant attacks on Egyptian security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula, including the massacre of at least 31 soldiers last Friday.
That assault was the deadliest on the Egyptian military in years, and a blow to the government, which has claimed to be winning the battle against insurgents. The resort to a harsh counterinsurgency tactic — destroying as many as 800 houses and displacing up to 10,000 people to eliminate “terrorist hotbeds,” as Mr. Sisi’s spokesman put it — highlighted the difficulties the military has faced in breaking the militants as well as the anger that operations like Wednesday’s inevitably arouse.
“Our house in Rafah is more than 60 years old,” Hammam Alagha wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, detailing his family’s eviction in a series of widely shared posts. After an army officer told the family to evacuate — and Mr. Alagha said he refused — the officer “said tomorrow we will bomb it with everything in it.”
Mustafa Singer, a journalist based in Sinai who was near the border on Wednesday, said that while residents had met with officials in recent weeks to discuss compensation, the evacuation order on Tuesday — delivered over megaphones — took people by surprise.
The border clearing came as the authorities have signaled a growing determination to expand their security reach throughout Egypt, to counter militants, they say, but also to crush outbreaks of ordinary dissent, rights advocates say. It was also the latest instance of the government using the overwhelming force of its security apparatus to confront what it sees as a threat to Egypt’s existence, whether the growing strength of militants or the demonstrations by thousands of Islamists during the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi.
Some of the recent measures, including a crackdown on university protests and a presidential decree issued Monday putting public facilities like power stations and roads under the protection of the military, were “confirmation of a conviction we have had for months,” said Gamal Eid, the head of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information. “Egypt is solidifying the rule of the police and the military,” he said.
The decree, which was issued while Egypt does not have a sitting Parliament, stipulates that people who commit crimes against public utilities are subject to prosecution in military courts — a provision that could potentially ensnare protesters marching on public roads.
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Rights workers said the provision not only violated the Constitution but was unnecessary, since civilian courts have been more than willing to convict both militants as well as the government’s opponents. Officials said the decree was a necessary measure to protect the facilities against terrorist attacks.
But even with their greatly expanded security powers, the authorities have struggled to contain the insurgency that developed last year after the military ouster of Mr. Morsi as president, and that has taken the lives of hundreds of police officers, soldiers and other security personnel.
The militants have operated mainly in Sinai, turning a stretch of towns in the north into a no-go zone for the authorities and even setting up their own checkpoints. They have also carried out bombings in the capital, while showing signs of growing sophistication: The attack on Friday was said to unfold in two stages, with militants targeting soldiers who responded to an initial explosion.
Afterward, the authorities declared a state of emergency in the area and closed Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt, where Egyptian authorities say the militants are getting support. Officials said that the buffer zone would extend the length of the border with the Gaza, and reach about 500 yards into Egyptian territory.
It remained to be seen whether the buffer zone would have any effect on militant activity, given that the Egyptian authorities have all but sealed off Gaza over the last year, severely limiting traffic over the border and aggressively demolishing smuggling tunnels.
Egyptian officials have frequently blamed Palestinian militants for attacks in Egypt, charges that partially reflect the government’s deep antipathy toward Hamas, the dominant Palestinian movement in Gaza, whose leaders were close allies of Mr. Morsi.
But as security officials and government-friendly news media outlets have agitated against Palestinians over the last year, prosecutors have offered scant evidence of Palestinian involvement in attacks. And while researchers of militant groups operating in Sinai have seen some connections with movements in Gaza, they say the Egyptian militants are far more likely to receive weapons through easier routes, including the country’s long border with Libya.
The clearing of Rafah fit into a “pattern of responses” by the Egyptian military that favored overwhelming power and expediency against perceived threats, said Aaron Reese, the deputy research director at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington and the co-author of a recent paper about the militants in Egypt.
“The Egyptian Army is not interested in pursuing urban warfare,” he said. “Instead, they respond to militant attacks using tanks and helicopter gunships, against targets in the Sinai where it is quite difficult to identify individual militants blended into the local population.”
“It’s going to wind up being counterproductive in the long term,” he added. “You can’t bulldoze an area, home by home, and persuade people to work with you.”
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The approach is especially dangerous in Sinai, a region that has historically been marginalized by Egyptian leaders and where residents have long chafed under the heavy hand of the security forces. The government said it was paying compensation to displaced residents and helping to relocate them. In a statement, the president’s spokesman said Mr. Sisi had ordered that residents’ “full rights are preserved.”
On Wednesday, families could been seen traveling in trucks loaded with furniture away from the border. “There is confusion — difficulty in finding moving trucks, limited time, no places ready as alternatives to move into,” Mr. Singer, the journalist, said.
Mahmoud al-Akhrasy, whose house sits 100 feet outside the buffer zone, said officials had quickly and efficiently reimbursed residents who were less fortunate than he was.
Nevertheless, he said, “people are angry.” The farthest reaches of the buffer zone cut through the center of Rafah and its market. “People are displaced, so friends are away from their friends, and families are separated,” Mr. Akhrasy said. “Even people who got to keep their homes are angry. “
But he said some of his evicted neighbors seemed resigned to their fate. “They say, it’s a matter of national security, so we have to accept it. What can we do?”