Security forces in North Sinai
Security forces in North SinaiReuters

Egypt’s military campaign against insurgents in northern Sinai is harming thousands of civilians and risks turning more people against the government, Human Rights Watch warned on Tuesday.

The government in Cairo has evicted 3,200 families over the past two years and razed hundreds of hectares of farmland and thousands of homes in its bid to destroy smugglers’ tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula, the rights group said in a report quoted by The Associated Press (AP).

“Destroying homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s director in the Middle East and north Africa.

“The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes – none at all for their farmland,” Human Rights Watch said, according to AP.

The decision on the buffer zone was made following two deadly attacks in October in El-Arish, which killed dozens of soldiers and were claimed by Egypt’s deadliest terrorist group, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis.

Egyptian sources revealed that Hamas terrorists had provided the weapons for the lethal attacks in El-Arish through one of its smuggling tunnels under the border to Sinai, thus making the buffer zone necessary. Hamas denied the charges.

Human Rights Watch said in its report the United States had trained the Egyptian military to use “sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology” to find and destroy tunnels and avoid wiping out entire neighborhoods.

The organization also said it received video footage showing an American-made M60 tank shelling a building to demolish it. It called on the United States to make sure its weapons were not being used in violation of human rights.

As Egypt fights insurgents in northern Sinai, “it should do so in a way that does not arbitrarily harm civilians and violate their right to housing and their protections during forced evictions”, Human Rights Watch said, according to AP.

Egypt’s military spokesman Brig Gen Mohammed Samir declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch report, referring questions to a government spokesman. Government spokesman Hossam Qawish, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid and presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef did not answer calls for comment.

Last week, as part of its crackdown on Sinai terrorism, Egypt began flooding Hamas terror tunnels beneath the Egypt-Gaza Rafah border crossing, in an apparent attempt to prevent terrorist infiltrations.

The dpa news agency reported that Egypt pumped water from the Mediterranean Sea into the tunnels, making good on threats it made to Hamas last month.

Egyptian officials apparently intend to turn the tunnels, and the border region, into a series of fish farms.

The Egyptian army says it has destroyed more than 1,600 tunnels since the ouster of former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, a member of Hamas’s parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

(Arutz Sheva’s North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Yom Kippur in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)