CAIRO — Egypt is close to completing the construction of New Rafah City in northern Sinai, nearly 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The new city promises to alter the living conditions of its residents and help Egypt tighten its control over the border area with Gaza.
Covering almost 535 acres of land, the new city will contain around 10,000 apartments that will be given to the residents of Rafah, the Egyptian city closest to Gaza, who had been forced to leave their homes in recent years because of violence from the local branch of the Islamic State (IS).
Together with Arish, another major city in northern Sinai, Rafah was a stronghold of IS, originally a homegrown group by a different name that then swore allegiance to IS in late 2014.
While some Rafah residents left the city voluntarily, others were forced out of the city by Egyptian authorities in 2013 in a bid to clear the way for counterterrorism operations and to tighten control over the area, which also is close to Israel.
Local contractors have completed the construction of hundreds of apartments within the new city, with small parts of the city still under construction, northern Sinai officials said.
"Work is moving ahead nonstop in the construction of the city," Mohamed Radwan, northern Sinai's housing chief, told Al-Monitor. "Dozens of residential buildings have already been constructed and others are close to completion on the road to making the city a fully fledged urban community."
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the construction of New Rafah City in March 2018.
The construction of the city, he said, should have started three years earlier, but did not "because of terrorism in the area."
He said the militiants had wanted the site of the new city, along with the rest of northern Sinai, to remain empty and undeveloped.
The construction of the new city is part of Egypt's strategy to squeeze IS in Sinai, security analysts said.
The militant organization used sparsely populated Rafah in hiding among civilians, thus making it hard for the Egyptian army and police to hunt down its members.
Egypt launched an all-out operation against IS in November 2017. Operation Sinai 2018, which involved ground troops, the air force and the navy, was to have come to an end three months later.
However, in February 2018, the Egyptian army extended the operation, signaling the difficulties it was facing in cracking down on a militant group whose members survived by hiding among civilians and stockpiling its arms and explosives in underground warehouses.
"The terrorists used to hide among civilians in Rafah, which constituted a major security problem," Ahmed al-Awadi, a member of the parliamentary Committee on Defense and National Security, told Al-Monitor.
The border area between Sinai and Gaza was home to a huge network of smuggling tunnels that were used by Hamas — which runs Gaza — to illegally obtain supplies from Egypt, including fuel and foodstuffs.
When IS took root and grew in northern Sinai and some of the central parts of this Egyptian territory, the organization used the tunnels to get fresh supplies of militants from Gaza, namely the members of the coastal Palestinian enclave's Salafi jihadi movements that also support IS.
"The terrorists used to get essential supplies through the tunnels along the border area," Awadi said.
The Egyptian army has destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels in the border area with Gaza since 2014. Some of the tunnels were so big that they could allow the passage of livestock and thousands of barrels of oil from Egypt into Gaza which continues to suffer an all-out blockade by Israel.
The tunnel destruction was part of an Egyptian plan to secure Sinai and keep the IS threat at bay. So was the demolition of Rafah's homes, a process aimed at giving the Egyptian army and police freedom of movement in the fight against IS, security analysts said.
"The demolition of Rafah's homes deprived the terrorists of a good hiding place and gave the army and police the chance to move freely in the area as they tried to hunt these terrorists down," retired Maj. Gen. Nasr Salem told Al-Monitor.
Hundreds of Rafah's homes were razed. Alternative homes have already sprouted up in New Rafah City, which also will contain schools, markets, a police station, a fire department and sports centers.
The Egyptian government is investing $1.1 billion in the construction of the new city where Rafah's residents will be given apartments and homes almost for free, according to Abdel Fadil Shousha, the governor of North Sinai governorate.
An industrial zone will be constructed near the city also to provide employment opportunities for thousands of Rafah's residents, northern Sinai officials said.
"The presence of the industrial zone in close proximity to the city will create unending economic opportunities for the city's residents," Radwan said. "A large number of free trade areas will also be established near the city, which will change economic realities in it to a great extent."
Analysts said the zone and the city highlight Egypt's comprehensive approach to terrorism in Sinai, where it uses development as well as the force of arms.
Egyptian authorities have spent $38 billion on the development of Sinai since 2014, within a blueprint that aims to capitalize on the economic potential of the Sinai Peninsula's 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles).
The blueprint seeks to turn Sinai, which was neglected by successive Egyptian governments in past decades, into a pulsating economic center.
It includes the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, the construction of new urban communities and the relocation of millions of Egyptians to it.
The blueprint also seeks to utilize Sinai's natural resources, including eastern and central Sinai's mountains, which are known for their marble.
The new economic realities in Sinai, including the construction of new urban communities such as New Rafah City, should change conditions in this Egyptian territory in the long run and make it difficult for militant organizations to recruit, specialists said.
"Terrorist groups usually use poverty and illiteracy in drawing in recruits," Salem said. "This is why Sinai's development is expected to be instrumental in the fight against terrorism and extremism."