Egypt must develop its North Sinai province so that other countries do not scheme to put it to their own uses, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said on Tuesday, after reports of an Israeli plan to relocate Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula.
Mr Madbouly underscored the importance of the peninsula to Egypt’s national identity during a visit to the city of Arish, where he launched the second phase of the government’s development plan for North Sinai.
“We are prepared to expend millions of lives to protect this precious region of Egypt,” he said. “All Egyptians grew up learning about the importance of Sinai. Historically, it has always been a region used by foreign entities to attack Egypt, whether it was the Hyksos, the Romans or Israel.”
Israeli media on Monday reported a leaked document compiled by the country's Intelligence Ministry revealed plans to relocate Gazans to Sinai, adding credence to Cairo's fears that Israel's continuing bombardment of the coastal enclave was intended to force its 2.3 million residents across the border into the sparsely populated peninsula.
Egypt sees such a scenario as an unacceptable repeat of the calamitous displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes at the time of Israel's creation in 1948 and during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, known as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Repeating President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s warning, Mr Madbouly said: “We will not allow the Palestinian cause to be finalised at the expense of other nations.”
He said plans by past governments to develop the militarily sensitive North Sinai province, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, had always been limited in scope and implementation.
Mr El Sisi’s plan for the Sinai's North and South provinces, which began in 2014 as the military increased its presence in the peninsula to fight a low-level ISIS insurgency, has already cost 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($19.4 billion), the Prime Minister said.
The first phase, which included the construction of a megaport in Arish, a road network to connect North Sinai with the rest of the country and an economic zone on the Egyptian side of the Gazan city of Rafah, was stalled by efforts to fight the ISIS insurgency, he said.
“The first phase was mainly building up the infrastructure we needed to bring about real change in the province such as roads and water desalinations plants,” he said.
The second phase, which Mr Madbouly said would cost more than 300 billion pounds, will feature residential units, schools and healthcare facilities and will take half the time it took to complete the first phase now that the ISIS presence has dissipated, he said.
He promised compensation would be paid to North Sinai residents who lost homes and land in the project.
“Although we will be paying compensation to citizens whose lives have been affected by the plan, we also ask them to remember that these projects were made for you, the residents of North Sinai,” he said.
Human rights groups have criticised the Egyptian military’s treatment of civilians and their property during its fight against the ISIS insurgency.
The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, based in London, has published reports describing forced evictions of North Sinai natives, most of whom are Bedouin, and the demolition of thousands of their homes.
Residents quoted in reports by the organisation said only a few had received compensation.
Many also said their right to compensation had been undermined by a 2017 law that redefined them as "squatters”.
The Arish city council said in 2020 it had handed out compensation of between 50,000 and 150,000 pounds each to 51 North Sinai residents whose homes had to be demolished.