Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula
Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula AFP photo

Egypt is planning to establish an expanded buffer zone between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Sinai, security officials in Cairo have stated.

Forces are slated to clear the area of vegetation and structures in the coming days, as well as to remove thousands of Bedouins living in the area. 

According to Egyptian newspaper, Al Yom a-Sab’a, the the buffer zone will extend between 1.5 and 3 kilometers. Security forces will work to dismantle underground tunnels connecting Gaza to Sinai. Any building or structure that could be used to conceal smuggling activity will be demolished.

As part of the new plan, Egypt will also step up patrols along the Mediterranean coast, particularly in the area surrounding El-Arish and extending to the Gaza border town of Rafah, in order to prevent arms smuggling.

It was also reported that Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi plans to expand the jurisdiction of military courts in the area, so they can try civilians accused of damaging roadblocks and other public property. 

Sisi addressed the nation in a televised speech on Saturday following two deadly terrorist attacks in El-Arish on Friday that resulted in the deaths of 31 Egyptian soldiers. 

In the address, he blamed "outside forces" for Friday's Sinai attacks and said that the army would take "many measures" to defend the area and destroy the smuggling tunnels through which pass terrorists and weapons.

This statement seems to reiterate an Egyptian media report that intelligence officials believe the attacks were carried out by terrorists who entered Egypt through a tunnel from Gaza.

Sisi added that Egypt's "existential struggle" against Islamic extremists has worsened greatly since the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi. "This is meant to break up Egypt and the Egyptians... Egypt is fighting a war of existence." 

Sisi and Egypt's government then declared a three-month state of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula. As part of the emergency, the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip, the only route into the Palestinian territory not controlled by Israel, will be closed. 

Additionally, Sisi announced three days of national mourning and summoned a meeting of the national defense council. 

Despite the recent attacks, Sisi said that "much has already been done to combat terrorism" but that the Egyptian government "was ready to take action to solve the problem on the Egypt-Gaza border at the roots." Sisi added that "the army will avenge the bloodshed."

Cairo has long suspected that Hamas has aided Islamist terrorists in Sinai, although the Palestinian group said Saturday that it had nothing to do with Friday’s attack.