26 Oct 2021
Critical presidential decree eats up many times as much as the area of the Rafah buffer zone and practically ends the “dream of a homecoming”
26 أكتوبر 2021

The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights stated today that a decree recently issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi which designates close to three thousand square kilometers of land in the northeast of the Sinai Peninsula as severely restricted border areas technically means eating up more land in the region as part of vague military plans to evacuate the area, compromising the daily lives of remaining inhabitants.

The critical decree 420 for the year 2021 was issued with no community or media discussion worth mentioning and was published in the official paper on 23 September 2021 without offering any explanation. 

The decree includes several villages, residential complexes, and main towns still containing thousands of residents as restricted border areas, technically meaning making them constant targets and in danger of enforced displacement, in addition to the difficulty or impossibility of the return of thousands of residents to their lands from which they were forcibly displaced by the military in the previous years with the claim of countering terrorism, as those villages and towns are now restricted.
​​​​​​​Ahmad Salem, the executive director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, said:

​​​​​​​ “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government shows day after day its real intentions that seemingly aim to evacuate the majority of towns of North Sinai from residents. After using countering tunnels as an excuse to entirely evacuate Rafah, it is now legitimizing adding thousands of feddans to the restricted border areas, in seizure operations that are ​​​​​​​not preceded by any discussion with local residents.​​​​​​​

An analysis of satellite images done by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, in addition to other images from the field and testimonies from local residents showed that the region indicated in the decree 420 has an area of around 2655 square kilometers, while the Rafah buffer zone area the government started evacuating in 2014 and was almost completely done by 2018, with the claim of fighting ISIS-affiliate Sinai Province (previously known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis) group members, had an area of 79 square kilometers.

Images acquired by the foundation, as well as satellite images, show that Egyptian military forces supervised the construction of a series of huge separation walls that extend for tens of kilometers and are 6 meters high, surrounding the area designated in decree 420. The analysis also showed that the beginning of the construction of the wall preceded the decree by months.

Decree number 420 for the year 2021 modified presidential decree 444 for the year 2014 on “designating areas adjacent to the borders of the Arab Republic of Egypt and their regulations”, adding vast expanses of land to the original decree of 2014 in North Sinai. President al-Sisi had issued decree number 444 to designate Rafah, as well as an area of 1 kilometer in width adjacent to the eastern international borders from southern Rafah till Taba as “prohibited” areas, in addition to designating a “restricted” area with a width of 4 kilometers west of the prohibited area. 

According to decree 444, “prohibited” areas are areas where no one is allowed except for the armed forces, and all vehicles are prohibited other than those of security forces. However, civilians are allowed in “restricted” areas after acquiring written permission from the military, and residents of the restricted areas in the New Valley, the Red Sea, and Marsa Matruh governorates are an exception if they or their ancestors were original residents three decades earlier. Despite that, the decree did not exclude inhabitants or original residents of the restricted area in Sinai.

In the same context, the modifications present in decree 420 for the year 2021 expand the “restricted” area in North Sinai to be 2655 square kilometers, meaning that the entirety of al-Sheikh Zuweid, 11 of its villages, 7 new villages subsidiary to Rafah, areas south of al-Arish, and vast areas subsidiary to the city of al-Hassana, all fall inside the range of the restricted areas. The decree did not present any exceptions for villages, towns, and residential complexes in North Sinai, or what is left of them. It has also not clarified whether adding those areas as “restricted” would enforce new rules on their inhabitants when they have already been living under increasingly severe restrictions on their lives and livelihoods since 2014.

The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights estimates that around 40 thousand citizens in Sinai currently live in the areas considered to be “restricted”, making them constant targets and in danger of enforced displacement. In addition to rendering the hope of tens of thousands of civilians displaced from those areas, waiting for the armed operations to end to return to their homes, obsolete.

Decree 420 also did not offer any explanation for adding those vast regions as border areas. Citizens of North Sinai speak about their fear that those areas which were steadily evacuated are lands the Egyptian government would use as part of provincial plans that include understandings with Israel, the Palestinian government, and Hamas. The absence of official statements reinforces the spread of those speculations.

In previous years, the Egyptian military demolished thousands of houses and buildings, and destroyed tens of thousands of feddans of farmland with the claim of countering terrorism, especially in Rafah, al-Sheikh Zuweid, and al-Arish, in operations previously described by Human Rights Watch as measuring up to war crimes. Those operations led to the displacement of more than 100 thousand citizens, which is roughly fourth the number of inhabitants of North Sinai, based on official counts, including all Rafah inhabitants, as it was totally destroyed as the starting point of the destruction and forced displacement operations ongoing since the end of 2013.

Satellite images show, before and after,  demolished houses and destroyed farmland as part of the Egyptian army's campaign to evacuate the buffer zone. Before: Taken on February 7, 2016. After: Taken on October 6, 2021.Satellite imagery© 2021 SinaiFHR.  Source: Google Earth

Satellite images show, before and after, demolished houses and destroyed farmland as part of the Egyptian army's campaign to evacuate the buffer zone. Before: Taken on December 5, 2014. After: Taken on October 6, 2021. Satellite imagery© 2021 SinaiFHR.  Source: Google Earth


Satellite images show, before and after, demolished houses and destroyed farmland as part of the Egyptian army's campaign to evacuate the buffer zone. Before: Taken on December 5, 2014. After: Taken on October 6, 2021. Satellite imagery© 2021 SinaiFHR.  Source: Google Earth

The population of al-Sheikh Zuweid and its villages is estimated to be 59,931, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics’ data in 2017. However, many of the inhabitants of al-Sheikh Zuweid’s villages were forcibly displaced since the end of 2013 due to the escalation of military operations, as well as the lack of supply of basic services to civilians by the government. Over the course of the previous years, al-Sheikh Zuweid villages lost electricity, water, and communication services, and food supplies were prevented from entering the area for months on end. Vehicular traffic was also prevented in the villages of south al-Sheikh Zuweid, tens of schools were shut down, and the healthcare sector was almost totally crippled.

At the time when the Egyptian government claims to establish huge developmental projects in the Sinai peninsula, government forces have demolished in al-Sheikh Zuwayed alone 8 healthcare centres, turned 4 others into military ambushes, and closed down 3 others for security reasons, out of 14 healthcare units built during Mubarak’s presidency, during the military operations over the course of the past years, as well as demolishing several schools which offered their services to local citizens, which led people to move out looking for a better life.

Sinai Foundation for Human Rights’ analysis of the satellite images shows that the Egyptian authorities started building a wall separating areas of al-Sheikh Zwueid and al-Arish located inside the new “restricted” buffer zone several months before President al-Sisi’s decree modifying the areas adjacent to the borders in September 2021.

The foundation acquired exclusive images of the wall in al-Shallaq area in western al-Sheikh Zuwayed, and it is similar to the border wall with the Gaza strip. The wall was probably built from concrete blocks produced by a factory belonging to the armed forces recently built in al-Risa area east of al-Arish. The satellite images show the wall’s direction, extending from the Mediterranean sea coast in al-Shallaq, west of al-Sheikh Zwueid, toward the south, heading west to surround al-Arish.

Technically, the military seems to be building a series of walls to surround the main residential complexes remaining in al-Sheikh Zuwayed and al-Arish, to turn those communities into what resembles a big prison.

These decrees, in addition to strong restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed on the inhabitants since the escalation of the war in 2013, can compromise any real existence of original inhabitants in the north and east of the Sinai Peninsula, leading more inhabitants to leave the area.

The president had issued decree 442 for the year 2021 in October, which for the first gave the Minister of Defense broad, god-like power to enforce curfew, evacuate areas, or prohibit communication and movement, all based on an arbitrary interpretation of the 2015 anti-terrorism law. This decree seems in anticipation of ending the state of emergency throughout the country, which is the decision he has issued on the evening of October 25.

Both the International Human Rights Law and the International Humanitarian Law, applied in the case of war, strictly prohibit forced displacement and seizure of properties, except in certain exceptional cases, like ensuring the citizens’ safety and only as a last resort, in case there were no other solutions. The law offers a number of safeguards the government needs to follow in case of having to evacuate inhabitants, including executing the process according to transparent community discussion while preserving the citizens’ dignity and fully compensating them in advance. The Egyptian government did not even pretend to uphold those safeguards, as thousands of families displaced by the military in the past years remain without compensation or help. The International Law also requires governments to allow displaced citizens to return to their homes and lands as soon as the circumstances allow it.
​​​​​​​Salem said:

​​​​​​​“It is astounding that the government spoke in 2014 about evacuating a few hundred meters to solve the problem of the tunnels and is now demarcating almost three thousand square kilometers as restricted areas. It seems like sacrificing the lives and dignity of citizens in Sinai is the easiest thing the Egyptian government can do in exchange for vague plans that have not maintained their safety or dignity, it instead, evacuated the inhabitants of Sinai.”