The anti-terrorism operation has left 420,000 residents in urgent need of humanitarian assistance
Sinai in disarray as Egypt anti-ISIS campaign shows no sign of abating
As officials in Cairo marked on Wednesday the thirty-sixth anniversary of Israel’s military withdrawal from the Sinai, residents of the peninsula's northern towns hoped for a speedy end to the anti-ISIS campaign launched by the Egyptian military.
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's militants began their onslaught in earnest shortly after popular protests and the army dislodged the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from the presidential palace in July 2013.
“The lack of some basic foodstuffs, the complete suspension of the educational process, and the difficulty of travelling both inside and outside the Sinai show that we are in a comprehensive war,” said Ahmed Youssef, a 42-year-old teacher in Al Arish, on the eve of the annual Sinai Liberation Day.
On Tuesday President Abdel Fattah El Sisi laid wreaths on the tomb of the late president Anwar El Sadat, the mastermind behind the crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 as well as the 1979 peace treaty that resulted in the Sinai's liberation from Israeli occupation.
But almost four decades later public schools and universities in North Sinai have been shuttered as the Egyptian military continues its "Comprehensive Sinai 2018" campaign against the local ISIS-affiliate.
The disruption caused by the conflict has wreaked havoc with normal agriculture and closed public marketplaces.
“The Egyptian Armed Forces are securing the arrival of trucks loaded with fresh food to the cities of North Sinai and forces are distributing it to the residents of areas where there are ongoing army operations against terrorists,” said army spokesman Tamer El Refai.
ISIS-affiliated fighters have killed hundreds of soldiers, policemen and civilians, mainly in North Sinai but also elsewhere in Egypt where they have especially targeted the Coptic Christian community.
On Monday the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch issued a report claiming the counter-terrorism operation has left 420,000 North Sinai residents in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
"Our complaints do not mean that Sinai residents oppose this fight" Mr Youssef said.
"The main reason the tafkiris (unbelievers) are here now is that there was an absence of the security forces in the past. We support the disposal of terrorist elements and getting the Sinai back as a normal home,” he said in reference to ISIS fighters.
Civilian support is key to victory said Muhammad Harun, a retired member of the general staff who served in the air force during the 1973 October War.
“The return of the Sinai was a great victory,” said Mr Harun. "Now we need popular support to liberate Sinai from the elements of the Takfirism who are trying to tamper with the stability of our homeland.”
But according to Human Rights Watch, ongoing home demolitions and forced evictions in Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border crossing, Sheikh Zuwayed, Al Arish, and Bir el Abd have left many families either homeless or forced them into crowded quarters with relatives.
“We were forced by this war to move to Zagazig in the Sharqia governorate,” said Yasser Abdel Aziz, 43, a construction materials dealer with a shop in Sheikh Zuwaid and a member of the Romylat bedouin tribe.
“Business was finished by the ban on civilian traffic in many areas. I will return with my wife and three sons when things become more stable.”
The Sinai is home to approximately 400,000 bedouins representing 70 per cent of the local population who are not fully integrated into Egyptian society have complained about government discrimination and been targeted for recruitment by extremist groups.
But the November attack on the Al Rawda mosque that killed over three hundred tribesmen in widely believed to be a turning point with the local population, now actively siding with the government’s objectives having lost any sympathy for ISIS's message.
“Sinai is the land of our ancestors,” said Naeem Gabr, 50, general coordinator of the North Sinai Tribes. “It is not the property of the Israelis and it’s not going to be ISIS territory either.”
On Wednesday army spokesperson Tamer El Refai announced that The Third Field Army killed “Wilyat Sinai” emir Nasser Abu Zakoul after an extensive exchange of fire with ISIS-linked forces in the rugged mountainous areas in centre of the peninsula.
Colonel Rafai said that more than 105 terrorists have been killed since the operation started on 9 February.
“The armed forces are close to meeting eighty per cent of the objectives outlined by President Fattah Al Sisi when he assigned chief of staff General Sobhi to use all their capabilities in terms of operational equipment and forces,” said retired Maj. Gen. Mustafa Kamel, now an independent military analyst.