CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military has bulldozed 13 homes along the Gaza Strip border and caved in tunnels beneath them as a prelude to the possible creation of a buffer zone to reduce weapon smuggling and illegal militant crossings, angering residents who said they were evicted with no compensation, security officials and residents said Sunday.
The military envisions creating a building-free zone with no trees 500 meters (1,640 feet) wide and 10 kilometers (6 miles) long starting at the Rafah border crossing and ending at the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Sinai government officials said. The homes were knocked down over the last 10 days as a test of the buffer zone idea in an area called el-Sarsoriya, a few kilometers (miles) from the Rafah crossing, while explosives were used to collapse the tunnels. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The move comes as Egypt's interim government and military attempt to assert more stringent state control over the largely lawless northern Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic militants have turned large areas into strongholds from which they have waged repeated attacks on security forces, Christians and tribal leaders — compounding the country's security woes following the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. Homes and trees along the Gaza border have been used as cover for militants to fire at border guards.
Ehab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said he feared the creation of a buffer zone would be a step toward imposing "a new blockade on Gaza and increase the suffering of its people."
"Buffer zones are not needed between neighboring countries that have historical and social relations," Ghussein said, calling instead for the establishment of a free trade zone at the Egypt-Gaza border.
The Egyptian military has closed much of the once-bustling tunnel system, but some remain along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) stretch of border. Residents angered by the past days' bulldozing staged a sit-in protest in Rafah Sunday.
One tribal leader claimed that many more homes were demolished and that the bulldozers showed up without notice, giving people little time to leave with their belongings. And the government has offered no compensation, he added, to residents who lost their homes. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from authorities.
Samir Faris, who lives in Rafah, said many more people fear losing their homes if the buffer zone is expanded beyond the small area leveled so far. Most homes along the border are two to three stories high and house more than one family, he said.
"Officers come to houses, tell people they must leave now because they want to expand borders," he said. "We have no objections, but first give us a clear plan."
At the sit-in, residents decided to propose a committee to authorities made up of the military, local officials and tribal leaders who could negotiate over the relocation of people living in houses proposed for demolition. Residents themselves are divided about moving. Some insist they want to stay while others would agree to leave with compensation because they agree with the military that the tunnels are a threat to Egypt's national security.
The tunnels have been used for years to transport goods and people including weapons and militants back and forth between Sinai and Gaza.
The Egyptian military estimates it has closed 350 tunnels, or about 80 percent of the total. Officials say efforts to destroy the tunnels have accelerated along the border since Morsi's ouster by the military after millions protested his rule.
Egypt is concerned about militants moving back and forth between Gaza and Sinai through the illicit tunnels, and is struggling to control jihadist sympathizers in the desert peninsula in what it calls a "war against terrorism."
Under its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt must coordinate any large-scale military operations in the northern Sinai with Israeli officials. The Egyptian officials said Israel has repeatedly accepted Egyptian requests to move equipment and troops into the area.
News of the home destructions came a day after Egyptian authorities arrested a top militant named Adel Jabara, identifying him as an al-Qaida leader in the Sinai Peninsula. He is accused of masterminding the killings of 25 off-duty soldiers last month. The attack was one of Egypt's worst militant strikes since last year's killing of 16 soldiers near Rafah by masked gunmen.
Last month, the army foiled an attempted suicide car bomb attack targeting a police station in the Gaza border town of Sheikh Zuweyid, killing three militants before they could reach their target.
Associated Press Gaza correspondent Ibrahim Barzak and reporter Mamdouh Thabit from southern city of Assiut contributed to this report.