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9 detained in North Sinai as tribespeople demand their lands after years of displacement

Nine people were arrested in North Sinai this week, after members of the Armed Forces made arrests and fired live ammunition to break up crowds of people from the Roumailat and Sawarka tribes who had gathered on Monday in several villages in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed to demand the right to return to their lands.

Two sources from the tribes who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity said that the nine detainees were at the First Police Station in Arish.

It is unclear if they are being investigated and on what charges.

Eight more people from the Roumailat were arrested at the Shallaq checkpoint, the two sources said, where the Armed Forces were making arrests on Monday and Thursday based on lists of names and license plate numbers collected at the gatherings.

Human rights organizations condemned the use of violence against the residents in a statement on Wednesday, describing it as part of an ongoing government policy of “undermining the will of Sinai residents and suppressing them.”

Crowds of tribe members gathered in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah as lengthy negotiations punctuated by postponements prevented them from going back to their lands. The communities were displaced from Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed nearly a decade ago due to the war with militant groups in the region.

This week’s gatherings are not the first time the tribes have taken action to demand access to their lands. In August, members of the Roumailat, Sawarka and Tarabin tribes held a 48-hour sit-in in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed. Talks with a high-ranking official in the president’s office followed the sit-in, and the tribes were promised they would be able to return to their lands starting October 10.

When the agreed upon date came and went, the tribes took action again this week. Multiple gatherings were held at several villages in the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed on Monday, with senior figures from the Sawarka and Roumailat tribes telling young people to gather to demand the right to go back to their lands.

A gathering at Foul Square in the village of Husseinat, which falls within lands that belong to the Roumailat, was the largest, according to the sources who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Around 5 pm on Monday, dozens of tribespeople came into the villages and inspected their abandoned homes, including homes in the military buffer zone separating the inhabited part of Rafah from the border with Gaza.

The gatherings in Rafah coincide with Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza Strip, which is entering its third week. Continuous airstrikes have rained down on the 2.3 million Palestinians besieged in Gaza, who are denied access to food, water, fuel and medical supplies except for a very few convoys which have been permitted to pass through the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Israeli airstrikes have targeted the crossing four times since the outbreak of war.

After tribespeople entered the buffer zone on Monday, members of the Armed Forces pursued them out of the villages and closed the roads leading to them with military vehicles. A young man from the Roumailat tribe who attended the gathering at Husseinat told Mada Masr that military leaders came and asked to end the gathering immediately “because it’s not an appropriate time to return.”

Yet the crowds refused, said the Roumailat member. The military attempted to arrest some of the young men, but others in the crowd prevented the arrests. Some people broke away from gatherings in Husseinat and headed to the village of Wefaq, where they blocked the international road in Rafah and lit fires.

Alterations broke out between the young men and members of the Armed Forces, who fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowds and made arrests, according to the two tribal sources who attended the gatherings and who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Both the army and police then set up checkpoints inside Sheikh Zuwayed, where they arrested several young men from the Roumailat tribe.

“Security personnel assaulted one protester brutally after an armored military vehicle intentionally collided with his car to stop him, resulting in head injuries and loss of consciousness,” the rights organizations said in a Wednesday statement condemning the security forces’ “use of violence against the peaceful protests.”

A member of the Roumailat tribe who participated in the August sit-in and the gatherings on Monday and who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity attributed the situation to the state’s role in the area over the past decade.

Tribespeople, particularly the Sawarka and Roumailat, were displaced from Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed as the security situation deteriorated at the end of 2014, when the state began its war against the Province of Sinai, an Islamic State affiliate in the peninsula. “My family and I used to live in a 200-square meter house and an olive farm in Rafah,” the Roumailat member said.

In the vacated land, authorities established a buffer zone adjacent to Egypt’s border Gaza Strip, stretching around 14 km in length and 5 km deep into Rafah.

In 2021, the Armed Forces promised the Sawarka and Roumailat people that they could return to their villages in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, in exchange for taking up arms and participating in the war.

The tribe members accepted the offer, mobilizing their members in March 2022. The Province of Sinai was defeated before the end of the year, with dozens of members of the two tribes killed in the confrontations. Weapons were taken away from the tribes, and they began to wait for the promised moment when they would be able to return to their lands.

Dozens of young people were lost to the war against the Province of Sinai, said the Roumailat tribe member, and the state has not yet presented a vision for the region or a mechanism for people to return to the lands they were displaced from.

“Now I live in a 50-square meter house that I rent and my primary source of livelihood, which was agriculture, no longer exists. My total monthly income is just LE5,000 from my government job and I have three children,” he said. “This is the case with hundreds of people from Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed who were displaced.”

Meanwhile, the source continued, contractors are allowed to establish a complex road network and agricultural committees affiliated with the military are coming to take soil samples, with reports circulating that projects will be established on the land.

August’s sit-in to demand the right to return was followed by a meeting. Representatives of the tribes gathered with a sovereign entity and with Sinai businessman Ibrahim al-Argani. The sovereign entity promised that tribespeople would be allowed to return to all of the lands they were displaced from outside the buffer zone at the outset of October and said that 100 homes will be built in each village. But none of those promises were honored.

With no other route forward, the tribes held the gatherings this week to reiterate their demand to return home. Commenting on the dispersal of this week’s protests, the Roumailat member told Mada Masr, “The officer asked me to go home. My home is in Rafah, so let me go to it. Do not stop me. The tribespeople’s situation is enough to push them not just to hold a sit-in, but to suicide.”

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