By Staff Reporter
“We are putting our lives at risk on a daily basis,” said Mohamed, a teacher who lives in the town of Sheikh Zuweid. “Sometimes there is fire between gunmen and the armed forces and sometimes stray bullets hit some of us.”
Militancy has surged in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal, since the army ousted an elected Islamist president last summer. At least 33 security personnel were killed last month and one Sinai-based group has pledged its loyalty to Islamic State, which has overrun large areas of Syria and Iraq.
Army checkpoints dot the main roads in northern Sinai which residents fear is turning into an all-out war zone. This made the daily school run arduous, and dangerous if militants targeted the troops manning them. “We’ve started calling the trip to and from school the journey of death,” said another teacher, declining to be named.
Since the militant attacks on Oct. 24, Egypt has imposed emergency rule in parts of Sinai, evicted hundreds of families and demolished their homes to create a buffer zone along the Gaza border about 350 km (220 miles) northeast of Cairo.
The government hopes that by clearing the 1 km-deep area of residents, buildings and trees, it can stem the flow of arms via tunnels from Gaza to the Sinai-based jihadists.
“The buffer zone is a principal part of the solution,” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in an interview with France 24 television on Thursday. “This should have been done years ago … There was an understanding with the residents about the need for Egypt’s security.”
Not everyone agrees with him, and the heavy-handed approach is breeding resentment among local residents who have long complained of neglect by Cairo.
A night time curfew has brought life to a near standstill while extended internet and phone disruptions aimed at breaking the militant’s communications also cause problems. Local people say they cannot even call an ambulance to pick up casualties or inform police if they spot militants nearby.
Ten civilians were killed in their home this week during clashes between the army and militants. Security sources said insurgent mortars hit the house but had earlier raised the possibility of an army air strike gone wrong.
Egyptian officials say extraordinary measures such as the school shutdown are necessary for both national security and residents’ safety.
Schools in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, both on the border with Gaza, would remain closed while the army secured the surrounding areas, North Sinai governor, General Abdel Fattah Harhour, told state news agency MENA on Thursday.
An army spokesman declined to comment on the military’s plans or whether they were related to the school closures. However, security sources said the army was planning major operations in the coming days and did not want children caught in the crossfire.