The undersigned Egyptian human rights organizations condemn the use of violence against the peaceful protests organized by hundreds of displaced and relocated local residents in the areas of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid in northeastern Sinai since 2013, demanding their right to return to their lands. The signatory organizations believe that these violations reflect the Egyptian government’s ongoing policy of undermining the will of the Sinai residents and suppressing them. This policy also undermines their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and demand their rights, and demonstrates a disregard for addressing past mistakes or discussing and rectifying their serious effects on the population.
On 23 October of this year, hundreds of residents from North Sinai, hailing from the tribes of Al-Rumailat and Al-Sawarka, gathered near the villages of Al-Husaynat and Al-Mahdiya near the city of Rafah and the village of Al-Zawara’a near the city of Sheikh Zuweid. They once again demanded their right to return to their lands after the deadline set by the Egyptian authorities for their displacement had passed. The authorities had broken their pledges to allow the residents to return by no later than 20 October 2023, as agreed upon during a meeting between tribal leaders and the Second Field Army Commander, Brigadier General Mohammed Rabei, in the city of Al-Arish in August of last year. This meeting took place in response to a protest by displaced and relocated individuals at the time.
According to the certificates and photographic materials obtained by the signatory organizations, the army forces used unjustified violence against the protesters, intentionally firing shots to disperse them and arresting at least 9 of them, who are still being held in unlawful detention at the headquarters of the Sa’ha Battalion (the largest military camp inside Rafah). In addition to this, security personnel assaulted one protester brutally after an armored military vehicle intentionally collided with his car to stop him, resulting in head injuries and loss of consciousness. On the morning of the following day, 24 October, Sheikh Saber Al-Sayah Al-Rumailat, one of the prominent tribal leaders in North Sinai and the leader of the August 2023 protest, stated on his Facebook account that there was two attempts to arrest him on the basis of orders from the Second Field Army Commander; he announced his intention to surrender himself at the headquarters of Battalion 101 in the city of Al-Arish. On the same day, dozens of participants in the protests were arrested by security forces at al-Shallaque checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Sheikh Zuweid.
Under the pretext of counterterrorism, the Egyptian army has committed serious crimes against the civilian population in North Sinai throughout the past decade, in flagrant violation of international human rights law. These included the demolition of thousands of homes and buildings and the degradation of tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land in the cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and Al-Arish. The military operations led to the displacement of nearly 150,000 Sinai residents to different cities within Sinai or to other governorates, in addition to the complete destruction of the city of Rafah, which served as the starting point for the ongoing campaigns of demolition and forced displacement since the end of 2013.
The agreement between military intelligence and the residents of the displaced areas and villages ensured that they would be allowed to return to the villages they had been displaced from in the cities of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, outside the buffer zone with the Gaza Strip, if they assisted the army in confronting elements of the jihadist Sinai Province organization and ‘cleansing’ the area of terrorists. This agreement has led to dozens of tribal members losing their lives and the injury of many more. Despite the compliance of the local population with the ‘temporary’ relocation plan, the Egyptian authorities continue to ignore their legitimate demands to return to their lands, despite repeated pledges from officials to facilitate their return. For example, in January 2022, the governor of North Sinai announced in a television interview that residents of all villages in Sheikh Zuweid would be able to return to their homes within three months, that the new city of Rafah was under construction, and that the situation would stabilize completely within one year. These pledges have yet to be implemented.
The recent protests by the population in North Sinai have arisen out of fear due to the repeated media reports about Israeli plans to displace Gazan residents in Palestine to the northern Sinai region. There have also been indications of intense pressure on the Egyptian government to permanently accept Palestinian refugees from Gaza in Sinai. Adding to these fears is the displacement of residents of areas in eastern Sinai, and the complete destruction of their infrastructure, especially in the city of Rafah and several villages in Sheikh Zuweid, as a result of a full decade of military operations against the Sinai Province organization and decisions by the Egyptian president that emptied the region of its population.
The signatory organizations warn of the danger of forcibly displacing North Sinai citizens, and forcibly transferring the population of Gaza to the lands of Sinai. Forcible displacement and transfer is a violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and constitutes a crime that reinforces ethnic cleansing efforts. The organizations call upon the Egyptian authorities to take responsibility for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed in its war on terrorism, provide fair financial compensation to thousands of Sinai civilians who have not received compensation despite eight years of displacement, and allow forcibly displaced and relocated individuals to return to their lands.
On 29 October 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued Decree No. 444 of 2014, which designated a 5-kilometer stretch of land inside the city of Rafah as a “restricted” border area along the Gaza Strip border. This was purportedly in response to the threat of smuggling tunnels. Subsequently, thousands of homes in the populated area were demolished to create a buffer zone along the Gaza border, resulting in the complete destruction of entire neighborhoods and hundreds of acres of agricultural land.
On 29 October 2014, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab issued a decree that called for the “evacuation and isolation” of an area stretching between 5 and 7 kilometers from the Gaza border, which included the entire city of Rafah. According to the map attached to the decree, the buffer zone was designated to extend along the Gaza border (13 kilometers) and encompass approximately 79 square kilometers of Egyptian land. The decree also stated that citizens forced to evacuate would receive “fair compensation” and alternative housing. However, the value of the compensation remained a point of contention among local residents and human rights organizations, as it was deemed inadequate to cover the actual damages. Moreover, thousands of displaced families did not receive compensation despite the passage of years since the decree’s implementation.
On 23 September 2021, President Sisi issued Decree No. 420 of 2021, which specified the designation of approximately three thousand square kilometers of land in northeastern Sinai as border areas subject to strict restrictions. The decree included numerous villages, residential communities, and major cities that still housed thousands of inhabitants within the designated restricted areas.
According to earlier estimates published by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, approximately 40,000 citizens in North Sinai currently reside in areas designated as “restricted,” placing them under the constant threat of forced displacement. Additionally, tens of thousands of civilians who were displaced from these areas were hopeful of returning to their homes once military operations ended. However, this recent decision shattered their hopes of returning to their lands. The same year, the President of the Republic issued Presidential Decree No. 442 of 2021, turning the “exception” into a “permanent state” in the Sinai Peninsula. The decree granted unprecedented and wide-ranging authorities to the Minister of Defense, effectively undermining the fundamental rights of civilians. These authorities included the evacuation of specific areas, the imposition of bans on residence, approach, or entry into specific regions, and the imposition of curfews.
International human rights law, as well as applicable international humanitarian law in times of war, strictly prohibit forced displacement and confiscation of property except in exceptional cases such as safeguarding lives or as a last resort after exhausting all other solutions. These laws provide a set of guarantees that governments must follow when they are compelled to displace populations. These guarantees include transparent community discussion of the decision and its implications, especially with those affected, ensuring the dignity of citizens, providing appropriate compensation in advance, offering alternative land and housing, and requiring governments to allow the displaced to return to their homes and lands as soon as the justifications for their displacement cease. Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution also prohibits arbitrary forced displacement of citizens in all its forms, with violations constituting a crime that does not expire. However, in all cases investigated by civil society organizations, the government has not adhered to these standards and guarantees.
- Sinai for Human Rights
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
- Egyptian Front for Human Rights
- El Nadeem
- Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
- Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights