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EGYPT: Government under fire for new Gaza barrier

December 20, 2009 |  8:52 am

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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 across the region who criticize Cairo for siding with Israel in isolating the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the seaside enclave.   

Construction on the 30-meter-deep wall began a few weeks ago, but the Egyptian government -- which opposes Hamas, the militant group ruling Gaza -- didn't  acknowledge the controversial project publicly until over the weekend. The wall is regarded my many Egyptians as an affront against Palestinians. 

"Whether it is a wall, sensors or tapping devices ... what matters is that Egyptian territory must be protected. Whoever says Egypt is imposing its control on the border, we tell them this is Egypt's full right," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying by Al Ahram Al Arabi weekly magazine.

The foreign minister's statements prompted Arab nationalist politicians and writers to accuse the government of President Hosni Mubarak of serving Israel's and the United States' interests at the expense of fellow Arab Palestinians. The matter highlights Egypt's close geographical and emotional ties to the Palestinians but also the complex political dilemma it faces in attempting to undercut Hamas.   

"It is a wall of shame being built by Egypt on the borders with Gaza," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, chief editor of daily newspaper Al Destour. "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."

Eissa wrote that, regardless of his and many Egyptians' political perspective, building the wall was an example of the Egyptian regime's dictatorship.

"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," he wrote. "This is simply because Israel adopts a democratic system while Egypt doesn't enjoy such luxury."

Similar reactions echoed across the region.

"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 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 MPs to file reports to the attorney general against the country's Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, as well as official inquiries to the parliament on the issue.

"It is pitiful that Egypt, who previously demolished Israel's Barleev wall during the Egyptian-Israeli war (1967-1973), is now bringing up this barricade." said Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdy Hassan. "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."

Egypt has tightened its border with Gaza since Hamas gained control of the coastal strip in 2007. But the smuggling tunnels -- transporting a range of goods, weapons as well as baby food -- were considered a lifeline by Palestinians who faced shortages due to Israel's siege of the territory. Cairo wants to weaken Hamas but at the same time does not want to appear to be unsympathetic to Palestinians or too cozy with America and Israel.    

-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Construction on the Egyptian side of the borders with Gaza. Credit: Eyad Baba / Associated Press

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