Does Cairo need to evacuate northern Sinai to fight ISIS?
Cairo- Calls are being made for the evacuation of large parts of the northern Sinai peninsula, site of intense fighting between army troops and militants linked to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Independent military strategists, political analysts and lawmakers say the army, which has been involved in guerrilla warfare against ISIS militants for more than two years, cannot vanquish militants hiding among civilians.
“The evacuation of some parts of northern Sinai will make it easy for the army to target the militants,” lawmaker Amal Tarabia said. “This evacuation will give the army freedom of movement and action away from civilians.”
Approximately 400,000 people live in Sinai, a triangular territory three times the size of Israel.
The Egyptian Army evacuated residents from the border area between Sinai and the Gaza Strip to demolish a network of smuggling tunnels. Also, in 1967, Egypt moved thousands of families from the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia to protect them after Israel occupied Sinai.
The government has allocated $1.2 billion to develop the region, changes officials say would help quell extremism and help reverse decades of neglect. Some of those funds will be used to secure the loyalties of Sinai Bedouins in the fight against ISIS.
The army dug three huge tunnels under the Suez Canal into Sinai to link it with the western bank of the canal and ease movement between Cairo and the rest of Egypt. One of the tunnels would allow Nile river water to irrigate thousands of hectares of Sinai territory.
Tarabia said, however, militants must be obliterated before development starts.
“You cannot spend money on projects that can be destroyed by the militants a short time later,” she said. “This is risky.”
Apart from angering residents, plans to evacuate parts of Sinai are opposed by experts who claim the move will give ISIS what it wants: turning Sinai into a no-man’s land and hinder development.
However, a recent mortar shelling that killed 18 police officers at a northern Sinai security post led to calls for clearing civilians from the area to help Egyptian forces in the fight against ISIS. The army, using fighter jets, helicopters and drones, is escalating attacks against militant hideouts in Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah and al-Arish.
Scores of ISIS militants have been killed, including 50 on March 30th, according to army spokesman Mohamed Samir. The ISIS second-in-command was reportedly among the dead.
“The army has already started its all-out campaign against the militants to totally eliminate them,” retired army general Nabil Fouad said. “The latest escalation comes after the gathering of new intelligence data about militant hideouts.”
On March 31st, Egyptian troops destroyed what was described as the longest smuggling tunnel between Sinai and Gaza, a 3km-long structure used to transport arms and militants.
Part of the problem the army is facing in Sinai is that it cannot get Sinai Bedouins involved in fighting ISIS. Some tribal leaders fear retaliation from the militants and others cannot pit their fighters against members of their own tribes who are fighting alongside ISIS militants.
If the military does not evacuate militant hotspots, it will have to carefully strike the militants to avoid civilian casualties. Civilians have already been caught in the battles, according to the Sinai 24 News site, which is operated by independent citizen journalists. On March 30th, 14 members of one family were killed when a shell fell on their house, the site reported.
Retired army general Alaa Ezz said the presence of civilians is what hinders the eradication of Sinai’s militancy.
“The army can easily strike the militants but it is only afraid that innocent civilians will be harmed,” Ezz said. “The army never targets areas inhabited by civilians.”
This is why Tarabia said civilians need to be taken from areas of military operations.
“These areas can be evacuated for three or four months,” Tarabia said. “This will force the rats to get out of their hiding and face our troops.”