Israeli strikes threaten Egyptian border towns

CAIRO (IPS) - Residents along Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip are still awaiting compensation for property damaged by air strikes during Israel’s recent onslaught against the Hamas-run enclave.

“The Egyptian government wasn’t responsible for the damage, which came entirely as a result of Israel’s assault on Gaza,” Governor of North Sinai Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha told IPS. “The situation, therefore, is complicated.”

During Israel’s three-week assault during 27 December through 18 January, tens of thousands of houses in the Gaza Strip were damaged by air strikes and artillery, and approximately 1,500 people were killed. Egyptian territory was not immune from the devastation: over the course of the campaign, the 14-kilometer frontier zone between Egypt and the embattled Gaza Strip also suffered hundreds of Israeli air strikes.

According to Israeli officials, strikes targeted tunnels used for smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt.

“During the attack, 86 homes on the border were seriously damaged as a direct result of Israeli bombardment,” Khalil Gabr, a leading member of the leftist Tegammu Party in the border city Rafah told IPS. “A good deal of agricultural land was also scorched.”

More than just property suffered. On 11 January, several people in Rafah, which straddles the border between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, were injured by flying shrapnel from air strikes targeting the city’s Palestinian side.

At the time, official statements suggested that local families might be compensated by the Egyptian government for damaged property. But local sources say no reparations have been forthcoming.

“In the immediate wake of the assault, the Governorate of North Sinai found that hundreds of homes and large tracts of farmland had been badly damaged, sparking debate in parliament about reparations,” Hatem al-Bulk, local journalist and political activist told IPS. “But to date, no remuneration has been paid out.

“The North Sinai governor recommended paying compensation, but the idea was never approved by Cairo,” added al-Bulk, a resident of al-Arish, located some 40 kilometers to the west of Rafah.

Shousha confirmed that the issue of reparations remained up in the air.

“After the assault, the ministry of population made a survey of homes in Rafah that had been damaged,” he said. “But beyond this, no other steps have been taken in terms of reimbursement.”

“Compensation could possibly come from a source other than the Egyptian government — an option that the foreign ministry is currently working on,” Shousha added. “Regardless of the source of funds, though, the issue will take time.”

According to Gabr, the chances of a payout by the government are slim. “Even if the state does provide local people compensation, it will only be token reimbursement — nothing substantial.”

Gabr went on to accuse the government of harboring a longstanding desire to move residents away from the flashpoint frontier zone.

“In late 2007, certain officials hinted at plans to move households to a minimum distance of three kilometers from the Gaza border,” he said. “But after angry demonstrations by local residents and clashes with police, the authorities backtracked and said they had no such intentions.”

“And since the Israeli assault on Gaza, fresh rumors have surfaced of plans to build a ‘New Rafah’ not far from the old one, in which long-suffering Rafah residents would be encouraged to settle,” Gabr added.

Shousha, however, was quick to dismiss the idea.

“Talk of a ‘New Rafah’ has not come up for discussion; no decision on the matter has been taken,” he said. “But after the recent assault on Gaza, some local residents have begun looking for land on which to build homes at a safe distance from the border.

“The residents of Rafah, whether tenants or landowners, are free to leave the area and settle elsewhere,” Shousha stressed. “This would not be an unreasonable solution.”

According to local reports, the area continues to be subject to intermittent Israeli air strikes. “After a lull in March and April, strikes resumed on 1 and 2 May, causing the windows of nearby homes to shatter, and roofs to collapse,” said Gabr. “Rafah residents — men, women and children — are living in a perpetual state of fear, thinking they might be killed at any moment.”

“Many have left, or are preparing to leave the city,” added Gabr, who recently sent his wife and children to stay with relatives in Sheik Zuweid City, some 10 kilometers to the west of Rafah.

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week (19 and 20 May), the border area was again subject to a number of air strikes launched by Israeli F-16 warplanes. “Local people are being terrorized with every new round of strikes,” said al-Bulk.

Residents also complain of ramped up security restrictions in the area by the Egyptian authorities.

“In the last four months, Rafah has been transformed into a militarized zone, with civilians forbidden to walk the streets of the city — except the main street — after 10pm,” said Gabr. “Between the frequent bombardments and new security restrictions, Rafah is fast on its way to becoming a ghost town.”

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