By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times –
21 Dec 2009
An underground barrier to prevent tunneling by smugglers along Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip has been dubbed a “wall of shame” by Arab writers and politicians who charge that Cairo is siding with Israel in isolating the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the seaside enclave.
Construction on the 100-foot-deep steel wall began a few weeks ago, but the Egyptian government didn’t publicly acknowledge the project until the weekend. Officials defended the effort against accusations that it was an affront to Palestinians by the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which opposes Hamas, the militant group ruling Gaza.
“Whether it is a wall, sensors or tapping devices . . . what matters is that Egyptian territory must be protected,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying by Al Ahram al Arabi weekly magazine. “Whoever says Egypt is imposing its control on the border, we tell them this is Egypt’s full right.”
The controversy highlights Egypt’s close geographical and emotional ties to the Palestinians, but also the complex political dilemma it faces in attempting to undercut Hamas. The construction comes at a time when Egypt is wary over Hamas’ ties to Iran and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also as Egyptian officials are pushing for unity between Palestinian parties and a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Egypt has tightened its border with Gaza since Hamas gained control of the coastal strip in 2007. But the smuggling tunnels — transporting goods as varied as weapons and baby food — were considered lifelines to Palestinians who faced shortages because of Israel’s siege of the territory.
“It is a wall of shame being built by Egypt on the borders with Gaza,” wrote Ibrahim Issa, chief editor of daily newspaper Al Dustour. “It is like a total obedience to the American recommendations. We are opening our territories for a barrier that only serves and supports the Israeli and U.S. policies.”
Issa, a frequent government critic, pointed out that regardless of his and many Egyptians’ political persuasions, building the wall is a clear example of Egypt’s authoritarianism.
“Unlike in Israel, where constructing a wall separating its territories from Gaza and the West Bank was debated in parliament and in the media before it was given the thumbs up, our regime was keen on classifying any information regarding the new wall. This is simply because Israel adopts a democratic system while Egypt doesn’t enjoy such luxury,” he wrote.
Similar reactions echoed across the region. They followed denunciations in January when Egypt closed its Rafah border crossing with Gaza during the Israeli invasion of the strip. The move effectively put a stranglehold on goods entering the enclave.
“We can understand it when the Israeli government uses the same methods as the Nazis in transforming the Gaza Strip into a huge concentration camp,” wrote the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi. “But what we cannot understand or accept is that the Egyptian government — and not the Egyptian people — should take part in such a crime for fear of the Israelis, and in an attempt to appease the U.S., getting nothing in return except humiliation and dishonor.”
Palestinian journalist Mustafa Sawwaf wrote on a Hamas-affiliated website: “The issue has nothing to do with Egyptian national security, and more to do with Egyptian policy.
“As far as the borders with the Gaza Strip and the steel wall are concerned, this policy is linked less to Egypt’s interests and security as it has become a tool for implementing U.S. schemes in the region.”
The wall, dubbed “the steel barrier” by Egyptian media, prompted a number of lawmakers to file reports to the attorney general against Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
“Our government is alleging that it is for the country’s own security while it is just another effort to stiffen the ongoing siege over our fellow Muslims in Gaza,” said Hamdi Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament.
Gazans rally against Egypt wall
Al Jazeera News – 21 Dec 2009
Hundreds of Palestinians have rallied in the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border to protest against Egypt’s construction of a steel wall aimed at blocking smuggling tunnels to Gaza.
Hamas had called on its supporters to rally at the Rafah border on Monday to demonstrate against the wall’s construction.
Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Rafah, said Hamas wants to put an end to Egypt’s construction of what the Palestinian group calls “a fortified wall” along the border.
“The implications of that fortified wall is that it will cut off all of the tunnels that run underneath where we are standing, by some estimates as many as 700 to 1,000 tunnels, which prove as a critical lifeline.
“Over the past several days, a great deal of speculation has mounted here in Gaza that Egypt was going to try to flood those tunnels [and] put steel rods in the ground to prevent those tunnels from operating.
“That created a sense of frenzy and pandemonium here.”
Our correspondent said there was a rush at petrol stations across the Gaza Strip on Sunday as Palestinians tried to stock up on fuel.
“The concern among Hamas officials is that the siege will intensify and that will create an even worse humanitarian situation than the one that already exists,” he said.
Israel has closed off Gaza to all but very limited basic supplies since Hamas seized it from loyalists of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.
The territory has since been dependent on smuggling for various supplies and the border is dotted with tunnels, which often collapse, sometimes claiming the lives of the smugglers.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the construction of the wall will create a “real disaster in the Gaza Strip”.
“We are not talking about borders between Egypt and Israel; we are talking about steel borders between two peoples, one of these two peoples is under siege,” he said.
“There are Arab League resolutions that call for breaking the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. Now, instead of taking practical steps to break this siege, we get surprised with this steel wall.
Abu Zuhri said Hamas officials have contacted Egyptian officials on the matter.
“They [Egyptian officials] have at first denied this, but it can no more be denied because it has been confirmed by what we see and by the definite information we have received,” he said.
“This issue is no longer a political matter. Tunnels represent a real lifeline [for Gaza’s Palestinians] under the closure of Gaza’s crossings, and that is why this wall will truly smother the Gaza Strip.”
Abu Zuhri said a Hamas delegation is expected to meet Egyptian officials soon to “reflect the movement’s objection and try to know the reasons behind building this wall”.
Israel has repeatedly complained that Egypt has not done enough to prevent smuggling into Gaza through such tunnels, which it says are used to supply Hamas with explosives and arms.
But in recent months Cairo has destroyed large numbers of tunnels, using detection equipment provided by the United States.