Egypt: Army ‘unnecessarily’ destroyed schools in Sinai

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Egypt’s army “needlessly” destroyed schools in the Sinai Peninsula in its war against militants, forcing a generation of students out of school, according to an investigation by a rights group.

Preliminary results after months of research by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR), shared with Middle East Eye, show the impact of the military operation on education in peaceful North Sinai.

​​The London-based group found that at least 59 schools had been demolished or attacked, and 37 schools had been turned into military bases in the 10-year war, The Guardian first reported. Most of the schools affected are public schools covering the primary and preparatory stages of primary education.

Among the cases documented by SFHR are the destruction of two schools: Arab Belli Primary School and Preparatory School in Arab Belli tribal community, part of al-Hasana city, south of el-Arish city. The organization has no confirmed information about the date of the demolition. But according to Ahmed Salem, executive director of SFHR, available eyewitness accounts indicate that the schools were demolished in the second half of 2020 or early 2021.

The schools, according to SFHR, were needlessly destroyed by the army, since they were located at least 15 kilometers from the buffer zone declared by the state around Arish airport.

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Salem said the demolition of the two schools was a “shock to the community”, as it happened overnight without any prior explanation and in conjunction with the demolition of houses in the area.

“After the seizure of the two schools, they were used as a military base by the army for a period of up to a year and a half, before the army returned and demolished the two schools and blew up the houses of the local people in Arab Belli,. ” Salem told MEE.

The two photos below, from November 2017 and March 2021, show before and after images of Belli Arab Primary School.

According to Salem, the SFHR did not record any military operations during the period of the army’s takeover of the two schools, and no operations were officially announced at the time. Militants have not claimed any attacks in the area either.

“This makes the bombing of the two schools after they were used militarily, and then the bombing of civilian houses in the village, a terrible violation that happened without an urgent military need,” Salem told MEE.

He added that the damage to schools has resulted in a “compromised education system”, as scores of students have been left uneducated and illiteracy has increased.

He said the demolition and lack of treatment for students is a violation of Egypt’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Egypt has ratified. International humanitarian law also prohibits attacks on schools or their use for military purposes, and children have the right to go to school even during armed conflict.

Depriving students of education

A new school nominated by local authorities as an alternative to the displaced pupils, ie al-Raysan School, located 12 kilometers away, which makes it almost impossible for most children to reach the school due to the lack of public transport in the area.

After the two schools were demolished, the families were displaced and given no financial compensation or other accommodation, so they had to leave their village, according to Salem.

A former teacher at the Arab Belli Preparatory School, which had 40 students enrolled, told SFHR that the location of the Arab Belli village is strategic for both the army and the militants. There is a hill that militants used in the past to monitor Egyptian army aircraft at the nearby Arish airport.

‘This generation has suffered a real injustice in terms of access to education’

– Sinai-based teacher

The teacher said it was difficult to access the schools before and after the 2018 military operation against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Prior to the operation, IS militants who had set up checkpoints on the road to the schools harassed and searched teachers and students.

After the 2018 war started, it was the army that made their journey to school difficult.

The journey of the teacher, a resident of el-Arish, was delayed for more than three hours due to 11 military checkpoints established in the area. Teachers were often suspected of being militants because the IS militants usually wore civilian clothes.

The teacher also said that the ongoing war in North Sinai and the destruction of schools has resulted in a generation of students who had to give up education due to the lack of other options.

“The decade of war was a disaster for students because of the lack of a regular education process. This generation suffered a real injustice in terms of access to education,” said the teacher at SFHR.

‘War on terror’

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former army general in office since 2014, declared a “war on terror” in North Sinai after ousting his democratically elected civilian predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, on a year before that.

In February 2018, he increased the operation by announcing a new offensive to “end terrorism” in the area, but since then the army has not declared victory or defeat. Years of military operations in the region between the armed forces and Sinai Province, the local branch of the Islamic State group, have taken a toll on civilians and soldiers.

The Egyptian government does not release statistics on the effect of the conflict on civilians, but Human Rights Watch believes that more than 100,000 of North Sinai’s 450,000 residents have been displaced or have left the region since 2013. The rights group also reported that between late 2013 and July 2020, the army demolished at least 12,350 buildings and destroyed and closed 6,000 hectares of farmland, mostly since mid-2016, in the province.

Cairo has justified demolitions and evictions as necessary in its fight against IS, which has carried out attacks against both civilian and military targets.

The city of Al-Arish is one of the focal points in the conflict, with hundreds of civilians and military personnel killed since the operation began in 2018.

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The pro-state media outlet Al Watan News said in 2021 that North Sinai has a total of 110,165 students and 216 primary schools, including those displaced across North Sinai.

At the beginning of the new school year in October 2022, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in Sinai, Hamza Radwan, said that the number of students was 120,228, which means that the number of students increased by 10,063 during one school year. ; when in reality, at least 96 schools in total in North Sinai cannot be used due to army operations.

The SFHR said it had sent letters to the Minister of Education; chairman of the education committee in the Egyptian Parliament; The governor of North Sinai and the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in North Sinai, in January 2023, asking them to clarify the government’s attitude and comment on the initial results, but the NGO did not receive any answers.

A source in the Directorate of Education in North Sinai told SFHR that a letter dated February 1, 2018, containing instructions issued by the minister of education to prevent the dissemination of any information related to schools or teachers in Egypt was the subject national security. re-sent internally on 29 January 2023 to all departments in the North Sinai Governorate of Education. SFHR shared a copy of the letter with MEE. The directors of the various departments also received verbal instructions not to deal with any press or human rights organizations to avoid legal accountability, according to an SFHR source.

The re-sending of the letter to the education departments in North Sinai came four days after the SFHR faxed letters to the Egyptian government seeking comment on the initial findings.

Middle East Eye has contacted the Egyptian embassy in London for comment.

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