Egyptian opposition grows against government’s Gaza barrier

Activists demonstrate in Cairo against the underground wall being built at the border with Gaza. (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

CAIRO (IPS) - Activists and opposition groups are stepping up pressure on the Egyptian government to stop constructing a barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip. Officials say the barrier will prevent cross-border smuggling, but critics say it will seal the fate of the people on the Gaza Strip.

“The Egyptian border was the only opening left to the Gazans — their only means of staying alive,” Gamal Fahmi, political analyst and managing editor of opposition weekly al-Arabi al-Nassiri, told IPS.

On 13 February, hundreds of activists from across the political spectrum convened in downtown Cairo to protest construction of the barrier. Demonstrators held banners reading: “The wall of shame must come down” and “No to sponsoring Israeli crimes.” The same day also saw anti-wall demonstrations in Lebanese capital Beirut.

Ever since news of the barrier was first reported by Israeli daily Haaretz late last year, officials have attempted to justify it by citing Egypt’s right to protect its national sovereignty and security.

“Egypt has the right to take whatever measures necessary to protect its borders in accordance with prerequisites of Egyptian national security,” presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said late December. “The sovereignty of Egyptian territories is sacred.”

On 25 January, President Hosni Mubarak declared that the barrier was intended to “protect our nation from terrorist plots.”

Despite widespread criticism of the barrier, both domestic and international, construction has reportedly continued apace.

On 14 February, independent Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm quoted a worker at the construction site as saying that the barrier’s iron panels had been adjoined with steel connections. They were in the process of being sunk into the ground to a depth of 18 to 25 meters, he added.

On the following day, another independent daily al-Dustour reported that Egypt was also building an anchorage for patrol boats on its sea border with the Gaza Strip. The new anchorage, a north Sinai security source was quoted as saying, would “enhance the work of the Egyptian patrol boats on the sea border with Gaza and prevent any attempts at smuggling by sea.”

According to Hamdi Hasan, parliamentarian for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, the United States, Israel and the North American Treaty Organization alliance are already monitoring the Egypt-Gaza maritime border “with a mandate to intercept any boats carrying aid to Gaza. “This,” said Hasan, “is well known.”

The border barrier and anchorage are only the most recent additions to a longstanding, internationally sanctioned siege of the Gaza Strip.

After Palestinian resistance group Hamas swept democratically-held Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, Israel sealed its six border crossings with the territory. When Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a preemptive coup the following year, Egypt followed suit by sealing its own 14-km border with the coastal enclave.

In line with the US and Israeli demands, Egyptian officials claimed the closure was aimed at stanching the flow of arms smuggled into the Hamas-run territory.

With Israel long in control of the Gaza Strip’s air space and territorial waters, the move served to hermetically seal the enclave’s 1.5 million inhabitants off from the rest of the world. Since then, the lack of badly needed food, medicines and fuel has brought the territory to the verge of humanitarian disaster.

Egypt’s border policy came in for particularly vehement condemnation — both at home and abroad — during Israel’s “Cast Lead” assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008/early 2009. For three long weeks — with the Palestinian death toll rising by the hundreds — Egypt maintained its strict border closure, forbidding any movement of the desperately needed humanitarian supplies.

Critics of Egypt’s border policy warn that the new barrier will represent the final nail in the embattled territory’s coffin.

“With the completion of the new border barrier, the siege on the Gaza Strip will be made airtight,” said Fahmi. “The territory will literally become the biggest open-air prison in the world.”

“Construction of this wall, which will seal the fate of the Gazan people, represents a historical crime committed by the Egyptian regime,” said Hasan. “By agreeing to build the wall, the government has signed on to US-Israeli designs for the region.”

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri, speaking late last month, said the barrier “has killed the last lifeline keeping the Gaza Strip alive after two-and-a-half years of siege.” Al-Masri added that the wall “does not serve the interests of any Arab party” and that it “only benefits the Israeli occupation.”

Critics, meanwhile, remain unconvinced by government attempts to justify the project by appealing to Egyptian “sovereignty” and “security.”

“Egypt could protect its sovereignty on the border by simply operating the Rafah border crossing, in which case the Gazans would not have to resort to smuggling tunnels,” said Fahmi. “Control of the border doesn’t need a barrier, it simply needs intelligent security procedures.”

“The government now says the wall is meant to stop weapons being smuggled into Egypt from Gaza,” Fahmi went on to point out. “But before the barrier was announced, all official statements were about arms being smuggled from Egypt to Gaza — not the other way around.”

“The government is fond of talking about Egypt’s ‘sovereignty,’” said Hasan. “But when the Israeli navy detained a Lebanese ship in Egyptian waters last summer, Egypt didn’t say a word about its vaunted sovereignty.”

Egypt’s construction of the barrier also has a political dimension. Within the last year tremendous pressure has been brought to bear on Hamas to sign an Egypt-proposed “reconciliation agreement” with the US-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas has until now refused to sign the agreement, which includes commitments to recognize Israel and renounce armed resistance — both of which run counter to the group’s founding principles. Egyptian officials, for their part, say the border will remain sealed until Hamas signs the proposal without preconditions.

“Egypt is building the wall to punish Hamas politically for refusing to sign Egypt’s reconciliation agreement,” Emad Gad, expert on Israeli affairs at the semi-official al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, told IPS.

Late last month, Palestinian Parliamentary Speaker Aziz al-Duweik said that inter-Palestinian reconciliation could not be forced through “unjust conditions.” Reconciliation, he said, could not be achieved through “an atrocious war on Gaza, nor by starving the Palestinian people through siege and a policy of slow death.”

“Neither can it be achieved,” he added, “by a steel wall that increases the brutality of hunger and siege.”

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