08 Apr 2024
Attacks on Education in Egypt’s North Sinai May Be War Crimes
08 ابريل 2024

London- April 8, 2024. The Egyptian military and security forces as well as the Islamic State (ISIS) local affiliate Wilayat Sina’ have launched attacks against schools, school children and teachers in Egypt’s North Sinai that have severely undermined the education process during the decade-long armed conflict between 2013 and 2023, Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said in a detailed, ground-breaking report released today. Many such attacks likely constituted war crimes and have also severely undermined the right to education for thousands.

The 170-page report, “Mines of the Future”, is based on dozens of interviews with witnesses, analysis of photographs, videos and satellite maps and other evidence. It documents for the first time that between September 2013 and December 2023 the military have destroyed completely or partially dozens of schools in five cities and their surrounding villages in North Sinai governorate. The military have also used 49 school buildings for military purposes, including as military bases, observation posts, and storage facilities, which all has had a devastating impact on the education process for thousands of children in these schools for years.

Members of the armed, extremist group Wilayat Sina’ has also used school buildings in North Sinai for military purposes, in particular as hideouts, observation posts, and in a few cases to escape military’s air strikes. The group has also used explosives in 4 schools to demolish them in order to prevent the military from using them.

[The report provides an interactive map where schools affected can be viewed. Click Here.]

Ahmed Salem, executive director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, said 

This reports sheds light on attacks on education in North Sinai during ten years of military operations which the Egyptian government and military have strictly hidden from the public. Voices of North Sinai residents who have faced the brunt of those operations deserve to be listened to and their needs must be addressed swiftly and transparently. Education shapes the future. It is about how this region will be shaped for decades to come. It’s self-defeating to claim that countering terrorism necessitated such violations

Between June 2022 and December 2023, Sinai Foundation conducted 63 interviews with local residents who are parents to school students, witnesses, teachers, and employees at the directorate of education in North Sinai cities. Sinai Foundation research team also conducted field visits to some of the schools in five cities, including Bir al-Abd, Sheikh Zuwied, al-Hassana,al-Arish, and Rafah, and their surrounding villages. Sinai Foundation analyzed photographs and videos of these schools that the team was able to obtain. The foundation analyzed satellite imagery for dozens of these schools. In many cases, imagery analysis matches witness interviews as it clearly shows destruction of the schools buildings or the existence of military vehicles and constructions indicating their use for military purposes.

Attacks on Schools

The report found that in many cases schools were damaged either in air strikes or artillery fire by the military, apparently sometimes to forestall using them by Wilayat Sina’ members. In other cases, the military has entirely demolished school buildings as a tactic to force local residents to leave their lands and residences, as part of the well documented mass forced evictions carried out by the military in the region and which have left tens of thousands without homes, income or alternative schools .

A father of a student enrolled in a school occupied by the military in Sheikh Zuweid said: “The government treats us as if we don’t exist or we’re not important. The army shut down the school in 2017 and converted it to a large ‘hotel’ to accommodate large numbers of soldiers despite that al-Zohor [military] camp was very close and where they could have built accommodation facilities. Was this the only solution?”

Children and Teachers Impacted

Attacks by both warring parties have also extended to impact school children as well as teachers. Sinai Foundation was able to document that, over almost ten years, the indiscriminate or deliberate attacks by the military killed 186 children and 21 teachers and education personnel, while injuring 268 and 20 respectively. Not all children and teachers killed or injured were attacked while inside schools. Some were targeted during their commute to or from their schools, and others while being home, as part of the wider indiscriminate attacks by the military that brutalized civilians in North Sinai.

In one incident on August 10, 2020, military soldiers killed two students and injured two others when military forces opened fire on a student bus passing through a security checkpoint located between al-Hamisa and Abo al-Glood villages, southwest of Bir al-Abd city, according to a student who survived the shooting and a local medical source.

In the same period, Wilayat Sina’ members killed 35 students and 6 educational personnel and injured 43 and 5 respectively. Many of those were killed due to the explosion of improvised explosive devices that the group originally implanted near or inside schools to target government forces. Others were killed by indiscriminate shootings by the group. The group deliberately killed other students and teachers whom it perceived as collaborators with the military.

The Egyptian authorities never publicly acknowledged any attacks on schools or using any for military purposes. However, Sinai Foundation obtained official records acknowledging that the military has been using some schools and that others were closed because of they were destroyed, an official document issued by the North Sinai directorate of education which mentioned that, as of 2016, 24 schools in the governorate have been shut down for “security reasons” or due to “total destruction.”

Sinai Foundation also obtained an official correspondence dated November 11, 2021, sent by the undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in North Sinai to a North Sinai member of the parliament. In the correspondence, the undersecretary explained that am elementary school in Sheikh Zuweid cannot be renovated since “it is closed for security reasons as it has a security checkpoint (interior) with roughly (14) individuals.”

In times of armed conflicts including non-international ones such as the one in North Sinai from late 2013 until 2023, attacks on schools which are not used as military objects is a war crime under international humanitarian law. The law also obliges warring parties to avoid establishing military objects in populated areas, in which schools usually exist. The Egyptian government never officially acknowledged that the situation in North Sinai amounted to a non-international armed conflict even though it has mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers, as well as its navy and air force during the 10-year war. Under international human rights law, applied in peace time, attacks on schools violate the right to education as they eradicate at least two significant elements of this right, which are availability and accessibility.

Sinai Foundation said that the legal qualification of the situation in North Sinai as a non-international armed conflict has virtually ended in 2023, as the last confirmed attack by Wilayat Sina’ was in December 2022, which was one of only two significant attacks that year. However, the region remains highly militarized where access to journalists and observers remains curtailed and independent reporting is prohibited. The military continues to block thousands of residents from returning to their lands from which they had been evicted. Some schools remain occupied by military forces as of publishing this report. 

The Egyptian military should immediately halt using North Sinai schools for military purposes, evacuate them, and ensure that there are no military posts in or near schools unless they are posts that are part of securing those schools based on relevant, plausible threats that must be explained publicly. 

The authorities should swiftly develop and make public a comprehensive plan to restore functionality of the damaged schools and build new ones in order to ensure that students whose education was interrupted have unhindered access w to schools that are close to where they live and where elements of the right to education are granted as much as possible. Residents should be allowed to return to their lands as long as security situation permits.

The Egyptian authorities should also ensure that Wilayat Sina’ armed members who committed serious abuses, such as deliberate killing of civilians are brought to justice in fair proceedings. They should in particular ensure that the group’s members have apparently been granted amnesty after turning themselves in, as reported by Sinai Foundation, did not participate in serious violations or war crimes.

 The United Nations Human Rights Council should establish an international, independent mandate to monitor and investigate serious and systematic committed by the Egyptian military and security forces in North Sinai and mainland Egypt since July 2013, and in line with what international and Egyptian human rights organizations have been calling for given the widespread impunity and lack of judicial independence or effective national remedies.

To read the report: Click here