Razing Rafah: The toll of the buffer zone

The entire border city of Rafah is to be levelled to the ground, Egyptian authorities have announced

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The entire border city of Rafah is to be levelled to the ground, Egyptian authorities have announced. “The establishment of a buffer zone requires the complete removal of the city. In fact, it will be completely destroyed,” said Abdel Fattah Harhour, governor of North Sinai, to which Rafah is administratively affiliated.

“A new Rafah is to be established, and until this happens, evacuated families shall receive financial compensation.” Harhour said the buffer zone, originally intended to be 500-meters long between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, needed to be expanded to stop militancy in the Sinai Peninsula.

Benefitting Israel

Some analysts see Israel as the only beneficiary. Journalist Moheb Emad said the zone was an Israeli request. “Israel asked Egypt to establish a buffer zone with Gaza several times, the first of which was right after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai,” he wrote.

“At the time, the Egyptian authorities evacuated 350 meters along the border.” Emad added that Israel called for a bigger buffer zone after the second Palestinian uprising, but Egypt built a concrete wall between Rafah and Gaza instead.
Mohamed Nabil, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement’s politburo, said: “Israel has for years been making sure Sinai is left undeveloped and unpopulated, and now we are giving them exactly what they want.”

Yahya Moussa, head of the oversight committee at the Palestinian Legislative Council and a member of Hamas, said Egypt is prioritizing Israel’s security over the lives of Gazans.

“The decision aims at serving global and regional politics against the Palestinian people, and will only increase the suffering in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “These are free services that Cairo is offering to serve regional interests and protect Israel’s security at the expense of our people’s interests and stability in Gaza.”

Journalist and Middle East expert Hana Levi Julian said the plan benefits both Egypt and Israel. “The existence of the city of Rafah still constitutes a military weak point vis a vis Gaza and Hamas, as it does for Israel,” said Julian, adding that being the only border crossing that is not under Israeli control, Rafah is the most prone to falling under the control of extremist militants.
“In Jordan, the sole crossing with Iraq was shut down last year after the Iraq side was seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” she said. “European monitors in Rafah who were supposed to remain at the site to ‘keep the peace’ and maintain its neutrality abandoned their posts at the first sign of danger years ago.”

Julian linked the razing of Rafah and the destruction of tunnels that Hamas uses to smuggle weapons into Gaza and militants out. “But if there is no home to camouflage a tunnel entrance or exit, and no city in which a terrorist can hide, it will be that much harder for Gaza terror to gain a foothold in Egypt. Fewer supplies to terrorists will mean fewer attacks on Egyptian security personnel… Fewer supplies via Egypt hopefully will mean fewer weapons with which to attack Israel.”

Local toll

Sinai activist Saeid Aateeq underlined the communal trauma to be sustained by evacuated locals and their offspring. “All locals are now miserable for leaving their lands and homes, and face an unknown fate. This bitterness will be bequeathed to future generations,” he said.

Aateeq acknowledged the danger of tunnels built between Gaza and Rafah, but objected to the way the state is dealing with the problem. “Those tunnels constituted an illegal pathway into Egyptian territories and were used in activities that compromised Egypt’s national security, so they had to be removed. However, security in Sinai will only be achieved through development and never through evacuation.”

Problem misdiagnosis?

Writer Fahmi Howeidi questions the validity of linking terrorist attacks in the Sinai to Hamas, and assuming that razing Rafah will bring security to the peninsula. “It is obvious that destroying the tunnels and creating a buffer zone have not yielded the desired results, which gives an impression that the initial assumption that Hamas is the culprit might be mistaken after all,” he wrote.

Howeidi called on the state to reconsider its strategy in the Sinai in a way that eliminates terrorism without uselessly draining the army. “Strategic thinking should rise above intransigence, and while its aim remains the same, it can always change the means through looking into alternatives,” he said.

Journalist Frederick Deknatel says the state’s preoccupation with getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, is leading it to fight the wrong battles.

“In the Sinai, the threat of jihadi militancy is dire and growing, but the government and state media, obsessed with crushing the Brotherhood, often distort its nature and conflate all militants with Hamas,” he wrote, pointing out the role of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, in Sinai terrorist attacks.


The official discourse is, however, seen as legitimate by many. Journalist Abdel Fattah Abdel Moneim said expanding the buffer zone was the only way to eliminate terrorism in the peninsula, which he solely linked to Hamas and the Brotherhood.

“The tunnels were used for carrying out terrorist attacks against Egypt,” he wrote. “We cannot deny the ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas under the pretext of defending the Palestinian cause. Egypt’s national security is above everything.”

Supporters of the decision include residents of the peninsula. Sinai activist Mona Barhoum said the tricks used to hide tunnel entrances and exits made it impossible to uncover them by traditional means.

“Tunnels are usually hidden in places that are not normally searched by security officers, like bathrooms and kitchens inside houses,” she said. “Others are hidden in the middle of olive and peach farms, and those are especially used for larger items that cannot be smuggled through houses.”

Some tunnels have several entrances and exits, so if one is discovered and closed the others are used, Barhoum added. “Those tricks have only started lately when raids intensified and security was tightened in the peninsula, which had not been the case for years.”