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HRW: Egypt Razed 3,000 Buildings in Sinai Campaign

FILE - An Egyptian armored vehicle patrols in Sinai.

Egypt demolished more than 3,000 buildings in the Sinai Peninsula during the past two years in what was likely a disproportionate campaign to eliminate smuggling tunnels and create a buffer zone next to the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

In a new report, HRW said the residential, commercial and community buildings were often knocked down with little notice, leaving thousands of people homeless and with inadequate compensation. In addition to the structures, the rights group said Egyptian authorities cleared nearly 700 hectares of farmland with no payments for the land.

Egypt accuses Islamic militants of using smuggling tunnels to move between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza.

"Destroying homes, neighborhood, and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director. "Egypt needs to explain why it didn't use available technology to detect and destroy the tunnels and instead wiped entire neighborhoods off the map."

HRW - graphic depicting destroyed farm land, Rafah, Egypt - July 2013 - August 2015
HRW - graphic depicting destroyed farm land, Rafah, Egypt - July 2013 - August 2015

The report said residents had no way of challenging eviction decisions and were forced to sign forms that said they had "voluntarily given their property to the state and pledged not to build again within the buffer zone."

HRW based its findings on interviews with 11 evicted families, journalists and activists in the Sinai region and satellite photographs of the area.

The report urges Egypt to not conduct any more demolitions until it studies alternative ways to demolish tunnels. It also says Egypt should compensate land owners for farmland, try to provide the displaced with homes similar to ones they are being forced to leave and to give residents ways to challenge their evictions.

HRW further calls on the United States, which gives Egypt more than $1 billion in annual military aid, to not provide the government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi with weapons that can be used to commit human rights abuses.

"The United States and other Western nations that arm Sissi's government look the other way when his forces abuse citizens under the dubious logic that he is aiding the fight against the Islamic State," Whitson said. "But Sissi's reckless counterinsurgency strategy serves mostly to turn his own citizens against their government."

Egypt has been dealing with attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai region that have included gun and bomb attacks against Egyptian security forces. The violence has worsened since Sissi ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.