Razing Rafah: The toll of the buffer zone


The entire border city of Rafah is to be levelled to the ground, Egyptian authorities have announced. “The establishment of a buffer zone requires the complete removal of the city. In fact, it will be completely destroyed,” said Abdel Fattah Harhour, governor of North Sinai, to which Rafah is administratively affiliated.

“A new Rafah is to be established, and until this happens, evacuated families shall receive financial compensation.” Harhour said the buffer zone, originally intended to be 500-meters long between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, needed to be expanded to stop militancy in the Sinai Peninsula.

Benefitting Israel

Some analysts see Israel as the only beneficiary. Journalist Moheb Emad said the zone was an Israeli request. “Israel asked Egypt to establish a buffer zone with Gaza several times, the first of which was right after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai,” he wrote.

“At the time, the Egyptian authorities evacuated 350 meters along the border.” Emad added that Israel called for a bigger buffer zone after the second Palestinian uprising, but Egypt built a concrete wall between Rafah and Gaza instead.
Mohamed Nabil, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement’s politburo, said: “Israel has for years been making sure Sinai is left undeveloped and unpopulated, and now we are giving them exactly what they want.”

Yahya Moussa, head of the oversight committee at the Palestinian Legislative Council and a member of Hamas, said Egypt is prioritizing Israel’s security over the lives of Gazans.

“The decision aims at serving global and regional politics against the Palestinian people, and will only increase the suffering in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “These are free services that Cairo is offering to serve regional interests and protect Israel’s security at the expense of our people’s interests and stability in Gaza.”

Journalist and Middle East expert Hana Levi Julian said the plan benefits both Egypt and Israel. “The existence of the city of Rafah still constitutes a military weak point vis a vis Gaza and Hamas, as it does for Israel,” said Julian, adding that being the only border crossing that is not under Israeli control, Rafah is the most prone to falling under the control of extremist militants.
“In Jordan, the sole crossing with Iraq was shut down last year after the Iraq side was seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” she said. “European monitors in Rafah who were supposed to remain at the site to ‘keep the peace’ and maintain its neutrality abandoned their posts at the first sign of danger years ago.”

Julian linked the razing of Rafah and the destruction of tunnels that Hamas uses to smuggle weapons into Gaza and militants out. “But if there is no home to camouflage a tunnel entrance or exit, and no city in which a terrorist can hide, it will be that much harder for Gaza terror to gain a foothold in Egypt. Fewer supplies to terrorists will mean fewer attacks on Egyptian security personnel… Fewer supplies via Egypt hopefully will mean fewer weapons with which to attack Israel.”

Local toll

Sinai activist Saeid Aateeq underlined the communal trauma to be sustained by evacuated locals and their offspring. “All locals are now miserable for leaving their lands and homes, and face an unknown fate. This bitterness will be bequeathed to future generations,” he said.

Aateeq acknowledged the danger of tunnels built between Gaza and Rafah, but objected to the way the state is dealing with the problem. “Those tunnels constituted an illegal pathway into Egyptian territories and were used in activities that compromised Egypt’s national security, so they had to be removed. However, security in Sinai will only be achieved through development and never through evacuation.”

Problem misdiagnosis?

Writer Fahmi Howeidi questions the validity of linking terrorist attacks in the Sinai to Hamas, and assuming that razing Rafah will bring security to THE PENINSULA. “It is obvious that destroying the tunnels and creating a buffer zone have not yielded the desired results, which gives an impression that the initial assumption that Hamas is the culprit might be mistaken after all,” he wrote.

Howeidi called on the state to reconsider its strategy in the Sinai in a way that eliminates terrorism without uselessly draining the army. “Strategic thinking should rise above intransigence, and while its aim remains the same, it can always change the means through looking into alternatives,” he said.

Journalist Frederick Deknatel says the state’s preoccupation with getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, is leading it to fight the wrong battles.

“In the Sinai, the threat of jihadi militancy is dire and growing, but the government and state media, obsessed with crushing the Brotherhood, often distort its nature and conflate all militants with Hamas,” he wrote, pointing out the role of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, in Sinai terrorist attacks.


The official discourse is, however, seen as legitimate by many. Journalist Abdel Fattah Abdel Moneim said expanding the buffer zone was the only way to eliminate terrorism in THE PENINSULA, which he solely linked to Hamas and the Brotherhood.

“The tunnels were used for carrying out terrorist attacks against Egypt,” he wrote. “We cannot deny the ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas under the pretext of defending the Palestinian cause. Egypt’s national security is above everything.”

Supporters of the decision include residents of THE PENINSULA. Sinai activist Mona Barhoum said the tricks used to hide tunnel entrances and exits made it impossible to uncover them by traditional means.

“Tunnels are usually hidden in places that are not normally searched by security officers, like bathrooms and kitchens inside houses,” she said. “Others are hidden in the middle of olive and peach farms, and those are especially used for larger items that cannot be smuggled through houses.”

Some tunnels have several entrances and exits, so if one is discovered and closed the others are used, Barhoum added. “Those tricks have only started lately when raids intensified and security was tightened in THE PENINSULA, which had not been the case for years.”

Will a ‘remove the hijab’ campaign turn heads in Egypt?


The headscarf, or “hijab,” has always been a controversial issue in Egypt, with most clerics saying it is obligatory in Islam, while intellectuals call it a tradition rather than a religious rule.

The controversy intensified with a campaign called “The International Day for Taking Off the Headscarf,” launched in Sept. 2013 by Bahaa Anwar, head of the Secular Party of Egypt and a prominent Egyptian Shiite.

The campaign never took off, but the debate has continued into 2015.

“The headscarf is not obligatory in Islam and it is used by clerics to control women. A piece of cloth cannot possibly determine how religious a woman is,” said Anwar, adding that his party planned to provide counseling for women who are forced to wear the headscarf or want to take it off.


Many commentators say taking off the hijab is politically motivated. Psychology professor Rashad Abdel Latif said a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule led youths to associate religion with extremism. “Women took off the headscarf as a statement against extremist ideas promoted by the Brotherhood and other Islamist factions,” he said.

Professor of political sociology Saeid al-Sadeq said the Brotherhood and its supporters tarnished the image of Islam. “Islamists used a violent discourse, and they followed talk about Islamic law with threats of torture and murder,” he said.

Professor of psychology Mohamed Nabil said the Brotherhood was incapable of understanding the nature of the Egyptian people. “They did not realize that Egyptians will be repulsed by the aggressive ways they used to promote Islamic principles, and will never be forced into doing something through such terrorizing acts,” he said.

Abdel Latif, Sadeq and Nabil also linked the phenomenon of taking off the hijab to the rise of atheism in Egypt, citing the latter as another consequence of Brotherhood rule.

Journalist Sara Allam linked taking off the headscarf to the rebellious atmosphere that has prevailed since the Jan. 25 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. “The 2011 revolution reshaped the Egyptian society as rebellion was proven to yield fruits,” she wrote, adding that this specifically affected women who played a major role in toppling the regime and realized they were capable of challenging other taboos.

“Women started reconsidering their position in society, and rebellion extended to the general patriarchal system,” she wrote. “That is when the legend of the veil fell, and women who claimed they were wearing it out of conviction admitted they were victims of a manipulative religious discourse.” Taking off the hijab, Allam said, was no longer the taboo it used to be.


However, Islamist analysts and supporters of the headscarf have focused on religion rather than politics. Safaa Salah al-Din, one of the administrators of preacher Amr Khaled’s website, says many girls wear the hijab without knowing its religious value, either because they are forced by their parents upon puberty, or because religious institutions do not sufficiently raise religious awareness.

Salah al-Din also criticized veiled women who behave in an un-Islamic manner, thus providing a bad example to others. “We cannot only blame the woman who takes off the headscarf, but also the surroundings that did not help her to understand the value of such a step,” she wrote.

Psychologist Amr Abu Khalil blames the clergy’s post-revolution behavior for women’s growing disinterest in wearing the headscarf. “When preachers started getting involved in politics, women no longer found the support they needed to keep the headscarf,” he said. “The same happened with men who became reluctant to marry veiled women, and this encouraged women even more to take off the veil.”


Azza Kurayem, a sociology professor and advisor at the National Center for Social and Criminal Studies, focuses on the social aspect of the phenomenon, as she links the headscarf to fashion trends.

“In the sixties, when liberal ideas were promoted, women wore miniskirts and men had long hair, then it got more conservative in the seventies and eighties and this is when the headscarf started spreading,” she said. Similarly, the hijab “started off strict, then women began wearing tighter and more revealing clothes while keeping the headscarf, until they eventually took it off.”

Abu Hasira: Between Religious Intolerance and Political Squabbles

Abu Hasira: Between Religious Intolerance and Political Squabbles

The Abu Hasira Festival, an annual celebration in Egypt commemorating the birth of a Moroccan Rabbi, was canceled permanently by court order in December 2014. The Alexandria Administrative Court, which issued the verdict, cited “moral offenses” as the main reason for cancelling the festival. It also ordered the removal of the shrine from Egypt’s list of historic monuments, and refused Israel’s request for the transfer the rabbi’s remains to Jerusalem. The ban can only be reversed if a higher court overturns it on appeal. While the verdict was generally welcomed by Egyptians who oppose normalization with Israel, and by residents of the village in particular, apprehensions about its implications for religious freedom and cultural diversity have surfaced. Reactions to the verdict have also been highly politicized, revealing the widespread overlap in Egyptian perceptions of Jews and Zionists.

Abu Hasira, or Yakouv bin Massoud, a nineteenth century Moroccan rabbi died in 1880 in the Beheira village of Damitu, where he was buried. His tomb has since become a pilgrimage destination for Jews from all over the world, with annual official trips from Israel starting after the 1979 peace treaty.

Controversy surrounding the Abu Hasira Festival is certainly nothing new in Egypt. Egyptian courts issued similar verdicts in 2001 and again in 2004 calling for the festival to be canceled, but authorities never implemented the orders. In fact, the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni listed the tomb as recognized monument that same year. In 2009, Israeli pilgrims were denied entry to Egypt for the festival as Israel was in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, a three week offensive against Gaza. Celebrations were also canceled in 2012, under the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood channel, Misr 25, reported on “human chains” preventing “the nightmare of Zionist crowds” from reaching the shrine. At least thirty-one parties announced their support for the campaign.

Much of the controversy links back to security measures put in place each year during the festival. Alaa al-Khayam, a member of the Bloggers against Abu Hasira, launched in 2007, declared his support for the verdict, adding that he, and his group, are not opposed to the right of religious groups to practice their rituals. “We oppose the Jewish festival because it turns the area into military barracks to protect the Jews and halts all aspects of life,” he explained. Residents of the village told local reporters in 2013 that they were subjected to house arrest during the festival.

Journalist Mahmoud Doweir, however, linked the cancellation to the Egyptian revolution. “No Zionists visited the shrine since the revolution took place,” he said. “Israel claimed that the security situation was the reason, but the truth is that the revolution uprooted the Zionist presence in Egypt.” Multiple campaigns against the festival organized protests, in what Doweir described as “efforts to reject cultural normalization with Israel.” The verdict, he said, was a reward for those efforts.

General Farouk al-Maqrahy, a security expert and former Member of Parliament for the Beheira governorate, saw the verdict as a victory which honored the demands of most Egyptians. “Political factions and residents of the village have long called for the festival to be canceled since the pilgrims are usually involved in activities that violate our values and traditions,” he said, in reference to reports that Jewish devotees visiting the shrine allegedly drank alcohol during the celebration. Maqrahy also refused to acknowledge the site as Jewish. “This is neither a shrine nor a monument. It is just an excuse to desecrate Egypt. There is even a possibility that Abu Hasira was not Jewish at all,” he alleged.

Madga Haroun, head of the Jewish community in Egypt, condemned the verdictas unconstitutional. “The Egyptian constitution gives every religious group the right to practice its rituals,” she said. “Abu Hasira has a special place in the heart of Jews and they have the right to visit his grave.” Haroun voiced her concern that crossing the shrine of the monuments’ list might eventually lead to its demolition. She also explained that heightened security during the festival was mainly the result of cultural and intellectual problems. “This happens because people do not know the difference between Judaism and Zionism. Abu Hasira lived and died in the nineteenth century, a long time before the creation of the state of Israel.” Haroun, however, supported the court decision not to hand Abu Hasira’s remains to Israel. “Abu Hasira had nothing to do with Israel or the Zionist project, so Israel does not have the right to claim his remains.”

Said Okasha, an Israeli studies expert at al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, argued that the verdict will tarnish Egypt’s image abroad, particularly since it is political in essence. “The issue of the festival has always been tackled politically,” he said. “Now after the verdict, it will be much easier to accuse Egypt of anti-Semitism.” Okasha added that the shrine and the festival belong neither to Jews nor to Israelis, but to Egyptian heritage. “Jews, like Muslims, Christians, and Pharaohs are part of Egyptian history. There was too much fuss around the festival and the issue has grown out of proportion.”

Mina Thabet sees the verdict as the further deterioration of Jewish heritage in Egypt. “We are on the verge of losing an important component of the cultural diversity we have always been proud of,” he wrote in his article “An apology to Jews.” Thabet argued that unless Egypt takes immediate steps towards redressing this mistake, it can no longer claim to be a civilized nation.

Even though this controversy, no stranger to Egypt’s courts, has existed for years, the finality implicated in the verdict makes current concerns more real than before. Egyptian people’s tendency to equate between Judaism as a faith and Zionism as a political project is not likely to change any time soon. Abu Hasira is another casualty.