PJ Media

Egypt's Steel Wall: An Attempt to Placate the U.S.?

A Middle Eastern country is building a massive thick steel wall as a barrier between themselves and a Palestinian regime. The country is being condemned for its actions across the Arab world, denounced by Islamist figures like Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and facing angry demonstrations at its embassies around the world.

Signs with the president’s face daubed with a Star of David are waved, and furious slogans are chanted. The new construction project, written about critically in the world press as “choking” Gaza, has been dubbed the “iron wall” and the “wall of shame.”

Sound familiar? Nothing new? In fact, the situation is very new. The country that is being berated and condemned is not Israel. The wall is being build by the Egyptian government to separate territory controlled by Egypt and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Israel is routinely charged with inhumanely and heartlessly fencing off Palestinian Gazans in a “prison,” despite the fact that Egypt’s official crossing to Gaza is also clamped shut, with the exception of a few days each month. But with the construction of this new wall, Egypt is taking some powerful hits from within the Arab world.

The wall being constructed is designed to stop the flow of smuggling between Egypt and Gaza through the border town of Rafah, an underground economy that is not limited to — but certainly includes — major weaponry and ammunition being stockpiled for terrorist attacks and to help Hamas rearm for the next war between Gaza and Israel. Along with the weaponry brought in to replace the stockpiles decimated in Operation Cast Lead, millions of dollars worth of other commerce flows through the tunnels on a daily basis. Everything from food, to gasoline, to machinery, to farm animals. The tunnels are a major source of revenue for Hamas, which charges a premium for the construction and use of the tunnels and puts a tariff on any goods that are brought in.

The planned 10 kilometer-long wall will include steel sheets that will reach 60 meters underground — an attempt to cut off the tunnels and the commerce that flourishes there. In addition to weaponry, the tunnels are also a conduit for terrorists, both reasons that the tunnels themselves were targeted in Operation Cast Lead.

Construction of the wall began in early December, with the Egyptian government doing its best to keep news of it quiet for as long as possible. By mid-December, it became impossible to hide such a massive project, and news of the construction broke and began to spread. Even as reports began appearing in the media, Egypt refused to acknowledge its existence.

An AP article dramatically described the construction in the same judgmental terms normally reserved for accounts of Israel’s building of barriers:

A jackhammer pounded large steel beams side by side into the sandy soil on the Egyptian side of Gaza’s border, putting in place an underground wall that could shift the balance of power in this volatile area. Once completed, the steel barrier would cut off blockaded Gaza’s last lifeline.

In the wake of the media attention, demonstrations condemning the Egyptian action have ensued, beginning in Jordan, where an organization of unions and professional associations protested construction of the wall. Some 150 people gathered outside the Egyptian embassy in Amman earlier this month and burned photos of President Hosni Mubarak. The photos depict Mubarak with a Star of David stamped on his forehead.

There was a similar scene at the Egyptian embassy in Lebanon, organized by an Islamist party loyal to Hezbollah and Nasrallah. And like the efforts against Israel’s wall, political activity is spreading to Europe, al-Jazeera reported:

A galaxy of Italian human rights organizations and dignitaries warned that the steel wall being built on the Palestinian-Egyptian borders would equalize Egypt with Israel in its blockade on the Gaza Strip.

In a letter to be handed Thursday to the Egyptian ambassador in Rome, the Italian organizations and figures said that Egypt has the right to take measure to protect its borders, but the blockade and starvation of Gaza people would not lead to stability in the region or give Egypt prestige and dignity.

The letter warned that Egypt’s wall would spread hatred between nations and would serve Israel alone, adding that it would cause a deep pain to the free peoples of the world.

Certainly, Egypt is not taking such a controversial measure out of affection for or a desire to protect Israel from Hamas in Gaza. Clearly, it is doing so out of self-interest. The Hamas regime in Gaza may not be as direct a threat to Egypt as they are to Israel, but tied as closely as they are to those who would destabilize the current regime in Egypt and replace it with a fundamentalist Islamist regime, they are far from trusted allies as far as Egypt is concerned. Gaza would be a conveniently located base for groups to organize and launch attacks. (Currently, Egypt is trying 26 men charged with planning attacks inside their country, linked with Hezbollah.) Therefore, Egypt has no interest in seeing Gaza loaded with powerful weaponry.

The most public battleground that the controversy over the wall is being played in is the Islamic religious world. “Dueling fatwas” are being handed down, as clerics loyal to Hezbollah and Hamas and those connected to the Egyptian government argue as to whether the wall deserves the Islamic stamp of approval, or Islamic condemnation. A group of clerics affiliated with the government, the Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar University, declared:

It is one of Egypt’s legitimate rights to place a barrier that prevents the harm from the tunnels under Rafah, which are used to smuggle drugs and other (contraband) that threaten Egypt’s stability. … Those who oppose building this wall are violating the commands of Islamic law.

A harsh backlash ensued in the wake of this ruling — led by clerics from inside Al-Azhar itself and then echoed by other Arab clerics. For now, officials like Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu-al-Ghayt are continuing to do their best to avoid addressing the issue when asked by reporters about the steel wall. Sounding defensive, the Egyptian minister declared:

Constructions Egypt is carrying out is to defend itself and defend its national security. This means the right of self-defense. … The secrets of the Egyptian state will not be material discussed on satellite TVs or the press.

The wall critics accuse Egypt of taking the step to placate the United States. Egypt’s blind eye to the smuggling activity has been costly in terms of its relationship with the United States, jeopardizes the millions of dollars in aid received by the regime, and has cast doubt as to whether Egypt can play the broker role it seeks in the Mideast peace process.

Cynics suggest that Egypt is playing for maximum advantage by building a wall to please the Americans and Israelis now. Later, once it is completed, there will be a wink to Hamas as they quickly construct new tunnel routes circumventing the wall, which will presumably silence the criticism in Islamist circles and allow Egypt to continue its tightrope act — balancing Western diplomatic respectability and Middle Eastern street credibility.