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Faced with displacement, unfilled promises, relentless clashes, Bir al-Abd villages live in the unknown

At the close of August, unofficial reports began to spread that the Armed Forces had “liberated” one of the four villages southwest of the North Sinai city of Bir al-Abd and would allow displaced residents to return after the Province of Sinai took control of the towns in late July.

Sporadic posts appeared on Facebook from accounts identifying as military officers serving in North Sinai, in which they spoke about the imminent return of residents to their villages and asked people to present their documents by the gates of the military camp in Rabea. On August 27, one of those accounts posted that the Armed Forces was able to “defeat terrorism” in the village of Iqtiya and that the residents would return in no more than two days.

However, an official statement never materialized from either the North Sinai Governorate or the military’s spokesperson, who has yet to mention the wide-scale displacement of Bir al-Abd residents, the Province of Sinai’s control over the villages or the clashes between the military and militants in the area.

Nonetheless, tribal elders were also spreading reports on social media outlets that a return was imminent, urging residents to head to the Armed Forces camp in Rabea, the site of a fierce July 21 attack and to present identification papers about their families and residence, after which they should wait for directions from the Armed Forces. Following that, dozens of village residents queued up in front of the camp.

One of Iqtiya’s residents, who is now displaced in the city of Bir al-Abd, told Mada Masr that he went to the Armed Forces camp in Rabea in the early morning hours of August 27 and found a large number of residents waiting by the camp’s gates. They began handling paperwork at 9 am.

The resident waited in a long queue, and after he reached the gates, he was asked to present copies of the national identification cards for all of his family members and birth certificates for the children, write his home address, roughly draw the surroundings of his house, and sign a handwritten declaration that Mada Masr obtained a copy of. “I am fully responsible for reporting to the Armed Forces in case I see any foreign subjects who do not reside in the village, any strange objects, weapons or ammunition,” the declaration states.

The resident added that the villagers were not given a specific timeframe for their return, but he heard accounts from other people that they should have returned in the first week of September at the latest, which had not happened as of September 9.

More than a month and a half after having fled, the residents of the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih are still waiting. And for many, some of whom who have been able to inspect their homes in a very limited area in Ganayen, the extent of the damage, the continued clashes, and official decisions that the governorate has taken compel them to believe that they will have to continue to live in displacement for the foreseeable future, which they fear could turn into a permanent displacement like what happened in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.

The attack on the military camp in the village of Rabea 

In the wake of the attack, the Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for a July 21 attack on Rabea, claiming that it killed 40 members of the Armed Forces and wounded 60 more. The spokesperson for the Armed Forces said on the evening of the attack they had thwarted the assailants, secured the military camp with backing from the Air Force and pursued the militants to a nearby farm and several deserted houses, killing 18 of them. Two soldiers were also killed in the attack, the Armed Forces said. Meanwhile, medical and local sources told Mada Masr that one civilian was killed and three others were injured. A resident of Rabea said the civilian lived in a building near the camp where military personnel were deployed. He reportedly tried to stop the militants as they approached the camp and was shot and killed.

The attack on Rabea in the Bir al-Abd area — located some 80 kilometers west of the North Sinai capital of Arish — involved the use of car bombs, a large number of militants armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers, and extended clashes in residential areas, with houses and shops in the village damaged in the fighting. It marked the largest coordinated attack in the area since Bir al-Abd became the new focal point of militant attacks in North Sinai last year.

The residents’ concerns have been confirmed by local sources, who told Mada Masr that the coordination with the Rabea camp is not aimed at facilitating the permanent return of villagers. Rather, as per security directives, the matter will not exceed a temporary return of residents to check on their houses to make sure they still exist or inspect the damages incurred from the clashes between the militants and Armed Forces.

The military has indeed allowed some residents from the village of Ganayen to go back on foot over the past week. Of the four villages, Ganayen is the closest to Rabea, with only a cemetery separating the two areas.

One of Ganayen’s residents who was allowed to enter the village on September 7 told Mada Masr that they were permitted to return and inspect a small cordoned-off area of the village, which is separated from the residential center by a railway line and is the closest side to Rabea.

“Everything is destroyed. Houses have either completely or partially collapsed. The trees in the orchards have dried up due to the lack of water. And there is no electricity,” says the resident to Mada Masr, adding that he could hear explosions following airstrikes in the vicinity of the village while residents were inspecting their homes.

One of Iqtiya’s residents said the declaration that the military is asking villagers to sign “implicates” people in the ongoing war. “Why do they want us to return and listen to the sound of clashes and shelling every day? How can we return when we left out of fear for our lives? A lot of people are scared to go back because no one knows what the consequences of this will be.”

The Iqtiya resident has lost hope that he will be able to return to his village again. “What happened in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed is not that different. Those who leave their homes do not come back,” he says, adding his doubts that the residents will be able to live in the village even if they are allowed to return due to the random shelling and violent clashes that can break out.

Local sources told Mada Masr that the military stopped asking residents to sign the declaration almost three weeks ago and that the paperwork has become a formality.

What the sources say appears to be consistent with the information presented in the latest statement by the military spokesperson for the Armed Forces, published on August 30, about military operations that took place in North Sinai between July 22 (one day after the Province of Sinai attacked the military camp in Rabea) and August 30.

Even though the statement by the Armed Forces did not specify the locations where the military operations took place, it was published a few hours after three ranking officers, one of whom belongs to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, and four soldiers were killed by a barrel bomb in a military vehicle in the village of Merih, according to a security source and local residents who spoke to Mada Masr. The army statement announced the same number of deaths at the close of its statement, but it did not clarify the circumstances of the attack on the members of the Armed Forces.

The statements also mentioned airstrikes on ground targets located in agricultural areas. A Twitter account that focuses on military affairs was able to geolocate some of the targets that were hit to the villages of Iqtiya and Qatiya.

One of the targets mentioned in the statement is in a crossroads in the village of Qatiya, an area in which the Province of Sinai had raised its black banner, according to local sources who previously spoke to Mada Masr. The video posted by the military spokesperson shows the flagpole with the black banner and a bombed-out building.

At the same time, the Province of Sinai has continued to publish information about its armed attacks in the city, all of which have taken place in the four villages southwest of Bir al-Abd, with a concentration in Iqtiya and Qatiya.

The Province of Sinai’s press releases include photos of clashes with the Armed Forces south of Rabea, photos that purportedly show the military campaign in the same area hours after the Armed Forces spokesperson published the statement, footage of a string of M60 tanks moving in a desert area, armored vehicles and bulldozers stationed between palm trees, and militants planting explosive devices in one of the streets.

The militant organization has also posted photos of the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Iqtiya, which had been previously confirmed by local sources to Mada Masr.

There were also photos showing a drone that had fallen in the vicinity of Rabea in early August. The Twitter accounts concerned with military affairs pointed out that the drone is an RQ-20 Puma tactical UAV, the same kind of drone that had crashed south of Bir al-Abd last January.

The militant organization claimed one attack whose circumstances are unknown: a car bomb in Iqtiya at the end of August. The organization published photos of a black car with tree branches attached to it, driven by a man identified as Abu Azzam al-Masry whose face is obscured. One of the pictures shows smoke rising to the sky, which the organization claims to be the smoke from the car that exploded right by a gathering of soldiers in the village.

A local source from Iqtiya told Mada Masr that the car that appeared in the photos has been seen with the militants since the beginning of the events and that it belongs to a resident of the Qatiya village who works in the Administrative Prosecution but was stolen by the militants. According to the source, there was no news about a car bomb in any of the villages during the past period, which was also confirmed by other local sources in the neighboring villages.

The decision to obscure the suicide bomber’s face, who has allegedly died, as well as the absence of any footage of the target that the car supposedly bombed, with only the claim that it was a military gathering comes in contrast to the militant organization’s previous statements regarding suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks, which usually showed all these details.

Some have explained this as an indication that the release is a threat by the Province of Sinai to prevent residents from returning to their villages, especially as those photos came out at the same time there was talk about facilitating the return of Iqtiya residents.

The deterioration of the situation on the ground in all four villages was further confirmed by the the executive decisions in the governorate, the latest of which is a proposal to transfer students in the four villages to schools in the villages of Rumana and 6th of October, and to run them during the evening due to the displacement of families and severity of the situation. According to a source in the general bureau of North Sinai and another governmental source in the educational administration of Bir al-Abd, the proposal is awaiting the approval of the governor. But the governmental source said that the matter is almost completely settled with regards to transferring the schools to safer villages.

The school transfer proposal was preceded by several official decisions that have been taken since the situation took a drastic turn at the end of July. The most important decision centered on granting exceptional and open vacations to government employees in the four villages, as well as in Rabea. The decision specifically mentioned employees in youth centers, local administrative units, and health units, according to official bulletins and confirmation from various sources in Bir al-Abd.  Additionally, the health unit in Rabea was moved to the adjacent village of Um Oqba, and its work is now limited to dispensing milk for babies and issuing birth and death certificates.

At the same time, the city council of Bir al-Abd called on families who were affected by the events, whether they incurred damages to their houses or agricultural lands, to provide proof to the agricultural and engineering administrations in the council so that the examination committees can collect the information. The council also published the names of the families that will receive a monthly grant of LE1,000 as compensation, and press reports have highlighted that a total of LE384,000 has been disbursed to affected families. There is an additional one-time grant of LE500 that the governorate arranged in coordination with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which will be disbursed to every family that was affected by the “war on terror” in Bir al-Abd.

In comparison to what happened in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, where dozens of residents and even entire families who’d attempted to hold on to their houses have been killed over the past years, the swift exit of residents from Qatiya, Iqtiya, Merih and Ganayen may have reduced civilian casualties.

Since the end of July, four residents from the villages have been killed, the last of whom was a young man who died at the beginning of September as a result of gunshot wounds suffered on August 10. According to medical and local sources who spoke to Mada Masr, 14 people have been injured in separate incidents.

Meanwhile, since the Province of Sinai took control of the four villages, militants have kidnapped four residents whose fate remains unknown.

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