Egypt establishes buffer zone on Gaza border to help with security, trade

There are hopes among the Palestinians that the zone could turn into a blessing for Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Palestinian Hamas security guards stand near an Egyptian watch tower on the border with Egypt in Rafah. (AP)
Challenges and opportunities. Palestinian Hamas security guards stand near an Egyptian watch tower on the border with Egypt in Rafah. (AP)

CAIRO - The creation of a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip would help the Egyptian Army tighten control on the area, prevent the smuggling between Sinai and Gaza and allow for the establishment of a free trade zone between Egypt and the blockaded Palestinian territory, experts said.

Egypt began establishing the buffer zone following an October 2014 attack on an army post in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai near the border with Gaza.

“The presence of this empty space along the border with Gaza will make it easy for the army to increase its presence in the area and tighten its control on it,” said retired army General Sameh Abu Hashima. “The army used to have difficulty controlling the area in the presence of its residents.”

However, some complained that buffer zone required the army to demolish thousands of homes and evict tens of thousands of residents from the Sinai Peninsula. Residents forced from the area were relocated to other parts of the Sinai and received financial compensation.

The decision to establish the zone was made by former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, who specified 13km-wide, 5km-deep buffer zone in Sinai along the border with Gaza.

The creation of the zone gained momentum recently with the Egyptian Army erecting a fence demarcating its southern border. The fence separates the buffer zone from the rest of Sinai. Before October 2014, Rafah, a city near the Gaza Strip, was inhabited by approximately 80,000 people. Although no official figures have been released, it is believed Rafah’s population has declined significantly since then.

Despite the lack of confirmation from the Egyptian military on the fence, Abu Hashima said the space between Egypt and Gaza would be impossible for terrorists to penetrate.

“Demography is usually decided by the sovereign interests of states,” Abu Hashima said. “Egypt’s sovereignty and security interests make it necessary for population concentrations to be away from this border area.”

Egypt has been battling a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai for several years, a showdown that has cost the army and police hundreds of lives. ISIS militants created underground infrastructure, including arms caches and hideouts, in the peninsula, that is taking the Egyptian Army huge efforts to obliterate.

The army started an all-out offensive against ISIS in February to root out the terrorists in northern and central Sinai. Operation Sinai 2018 involved ground troops, the air force and the navy. The operation was to have been completed within three months but in late February Chief of Staff of the Army General Mohamed Hegazi asked that it be extended.

The view among military analysts in Cairo is that the buffer zone on the border with Gaza will help the army control ISIS by cutting off supplies, which were believed to be arriving from Gaza, and preventing terrorists from sneaking to and from the Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, is known to use a network of tunnels to smuggle arms, goods and people in and out of the area. Egyptian military analysts implied recently that there has been collaboration between Gaza’s Salafist groups and ISIS. The analysts said ISIS fighters wounded in battles with the Egyptian Army received medical treatment in Gaza by using the tunnels.

“This underscores the importance of tightening security on the border with Gaza,” said Gamal Mazloum, another retired Egyptian army general. “The buffer zone will make this task much easier.”

There are hopes among the Palestinians that the zone could turn into a blessing for Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents who suffered under a decade-long blockade by Israel. A free trade zone between Sinai and Gaza would technically end the blockade of the Palestinian territory and ease the suffering of its people, analysts said.

“This zone will allow a measure of business activity in Gaza, one that can, with time, improve living conditions in it,” said Palestinian economist Maher al-Tabbaa. “Egypt will be able to exchange goods with the blockaded territory, which will boost the Egyptian economy.”