RAFAH , Gaza, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- An expanded buffer zone in the town of Rafah, split on the Gaza-Egypt border, threatens to eliminate the town.
The Egyptian military announced Monday extensive smuggling tunnels, some reaching 800 meters (2,600 feet) into Egypt, beneath the town are forcing a buffer zone to be expanded from 500 meters (1,650 feet) to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). Changes are underway with bulldozers and explosives.
The order to strengthen the border comes after 33 soldiers were killed in attacks on Oct. 24 in the northern Sinai Peninsula and an announcement last week that Egypt's foremost militia group among many in the peninsula, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has proclaimed its solidarity with the Islamic State.
The clampdown on the digging of tunnels beneath the border, which smugglers use to bring essential materials, as well as weapons, into Gaza, indicates the anxiety of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government. Since the Oct. 24 attack, at least two other incidents killed Egyptian soldiers and law enforcement officers, and last week an Egyptian naval vessel came under fire in the Mediterranean Sea in what authorities believe is the first attack at sea by militants. The Egyptian government blamed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, without explanation.
On the Gaza side of Rafah, residents are lamenting the loss of their town. A woman identified as Talya, from Cairo, told Al Jazeera, ""Rafah has turned into a ghost town. Most of my friends' houses are being destroyed now by the army. I know a lot of people in Sinai, and I have memories there. It breaks my heart to see what's happening there."
Although the Egyptian military has promised compensation to those who lose houses and farmland in the buffer zone expansion, residents say they await payment for previous losses. Resident Wissam al-Agha, who said he learned he needed to evacuate "when the army took down the outer wall of our house," told The New York Times, "Rafah as a city is over. There will be nothing left."