Will Egypt’s underground wall end the Gaza tunnel trade?

Equipment used to construct the wall on the Egyptian border with Gaza. (Lina Attalah)

Driving parallel to the borderline between Egypt and Gaza, one can spot the machinery behind the conspicuous wall construction project meant to stop ongoing smuggling through underground tunnels.

Some 80 meters away from the borderline, there were two cranes and a spiral driller. Four trucks loaded with sand and two with iron panels had just arrived on site. The usual silence of the borderland is broken by the sounds of this equipment and the few workers around them. People in the area say the wall will be dug between 18 and 25 meters deep and will extend all the way between the Egyptian-controlled Rafah and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom border crossings with Gaza.

The wall is meant to hack the tunnel structures, which extend from the Egyptian side of the border to the Gaza’s side for distances that range between 400 meters and 1,700 meters. With many prohibitions on the ground, the tunnels have become a lucrative underground alternative. The wall construction portrays the depth of this underground urbanism, bringing the conflict between smugglers and the security to the forefront.

According to smugglers in the area, the process kicked off 25 days ago, when workers came to uproot the few olive trees lined up on the construction site. The wall basically consists of a series of iron panels placed along the 13.8-kilometer borderline. The panels are overlapping and held together with molded steel connections. Smugglers said the panels will also include sensors to detect any movement. A faint hope for smugglers remained as they thought they could still run their tunnels underneath this 20-meter wall.

However, the water element is what has convinced many that the wall will be invincible.

No happy ending

Seated together around the fire in a traditional Bedouin maqad (get-together), a group of smugglers in the Mahdeya village, near Rafah, spoke about water extension of the wall and its perils. “We saw the pipes in the past few days,” said one of them. “Each is around six inches, 30 meters deep, and they will be placed at around a 20-centimeter distance from each other. They will be connected to a horizontal pipe which will pump water from the sea.” Such construction makes it impossible to dig tunnels underneath the iron panels.

In a coffeehouse in the Masoura district, two kilometers away from the borderline, smugglers also shared their thoughts about an ominous post-wall future. One of them who partially owns a tunnel, also foresaw the perils of the water. “Not only will our business be hurt, but the underground water of the area will be disrupted as well, with salt water being pumped into it. This is our sole source of agricultural and drinking water,” he said. The area lives on an underground fresh water canal that extends from the Sheikh Zuyawid town to Rafah in the northern Egyptian Sinai.

The implementers of the wall project have never been officially disclosed. Local sources say that it’s the Arab Contractors, a leading Egypt-based construction firm in the Middle East and Africa, that is handling the operation. Attempts to get verification from the company were to no avail. Smugglers said that the iron bars in use are imported and transferred via the Alexandria port. Trucks seen transferring the panels to the construction site had Alexandria license plates on them.

Some press reports state that there is official American technical assistance in the wall construction. Embassy officials have previously told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that at the request of the Egyptian government, the US has been sharing its technical expertise and knowledge in tunnel detection since late 2007. When asked about the wall proper, a US Embassy spokesman told Al-Masry Al-Youm, “We are not involved in the construction of any barrier on the Egyptian border, however, we do recognize Egypt’s right to protect its border.”

Self-protection is the argument in use by the Egyptian government in explaining the wall construction, besides reaffirmations that the wall is built on Egyptian land, and hence it is a sovereign act. Minister of State for Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab said in a report published this week in the local media that the wall was a legitimate national defense mechanism against arms smuggling and terrorism. The official religious establishment has also voiced its support for the move, amid protests from the opposition.

But smugglers in Rafah do not think of the wall as the happy ending of the border turmoil. “Remember when Gazans flooded the border in January 2008? The same will happen when this wall is complete,” said the smuggler in the maqad. In January 2008, gunmen in Gaza shot at positions on the borderline, breaking it open before hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, an incident that Egypt considered a threat to its national security. “The next war will be fought in Sinai,” said the smuggler, warning of a possible conflict between Egyptian security and Hamas fighters. “This is exactly what Israel wants.”

The smuggler in the coffee shop who runs a tunnel foresaw the collapse of his business. “When I learned about the water pipes, I knew that this puts an end to our business. There are no alternatives,” he said. According to him, before the tunnel business flourished during the total closure of the Gaza Strip with Hamas’ takeover in 2007, people in the area used to live on loans for agricultural projects in the nearby Egyptian city of Ismailiya. But nothing beat the lucrative tunnel business.

He estimated thousands of tons of goods moving through the tunnels every month. A ton of cement costs its trader $500 to cross, and a sac of 35 kilos of food items costs $15 on average. Digging a tunnel costs around $60,000 and many tunnels from the Gaza end fork into more than one end on the Egyptian side. Everyone on the Egyptian side is involved in this underground economy, from owning tunnels, to trading goods through them and transferring commodities and money. Even women get paid for packaging sacks of goods and sewing them. “Tunnels have become our streets,” said the smuggler. In a previous encounter, another smuggler said, “tunnels are underground supermarkets.”

“This wall will make no one happy,” said Youssef, seated behind an olive tree he planted in front of his house, facing the construction site of the iron wall, dubbed “the wall of shame” by Egyptian opposition and Gaza activists.

Lina Attalah is a senior reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm English, where this article was originally published. It is republished on The Electronic Intifada with permission.