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Egypt’s Iron Wall Targets Hamas, not the Gazan People…

January 28, 2010

“To be honest, all the people are saying the tunnels are breaking the siege on Gaza—its not.”

A Professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza City explains that in reality, the tunnel industry is a “trick” on the Gazan people which has eaten away their savings while Hamas and the smugglers get rich.

He explains that the goods brought through the tunnels for the people consist mainly of biscuits, chips and other non-essential items. “It is a very profitable trade for those bloodsuckers…they bring the goods from Egypt and sell it to us for double or triple the price.”

Gaza’s Tunnel Industry

Richard Falk of the UN described the tunnel industry as an “expression of the desperation created in Gaza as a result of the [Israeli] blockade that’s going on now for two and a half years.”

Before Israel’s last offensive on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, there were thousands of tunnels that brought everything from zoo animals to medicine into the besieged territory.

After Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Gazans, most of Gaza’s infrastructure was reduced to rubble, including the majority of the tunnels. The essential needs of the people became even more difficult to meet.

“Tunnel Millionaires”

Maha Fayek, a journalist living in Gaza, says that “after Cast Lead, there are many new tunnels, but in a business way instead of responding to human needs—because of this many smugglers have become ‘tunnel millionaires.’”

According to Mahsen Abu Ramadan, an economist and president of the Palestinian NGO Network in Gaza, “33 items are allowed to pass through the Israeli blockade above ground…traders of other goods, including weapons, bring them through the tunnels.”

“500 million dollars worth of goods have come through the tunnels in the past year.”

The tunnel industry is so institutionalized that smugglers must go to the Rafah Municipality to purchase licenses that allow them to connect to electricity and water. In addition to this, all goods are taxed by the Hamas government.

Abu Ramadan says that “because Hamas has the monopoly on the use of tunnels, the needs of the people are not the priority.”

What is Behind Egypt’s Decision to Build the Wall?

After Cast Lead, Egypt’s government came under pressure from Israel and America to take a more active role in stopping weapons smuggling from Sinai into Gaza. Egypt began by installing surveillance cameras and motion sensors on the border with Gaza. When that failed, construction on a massive underground iron wall began.

“America had some influence on the decision. They sent the Army Corps of Engineers to help the Egyptians construct the wall,” said the Professor at Al Azhar University.

The wall will extend up to 30 meters underground and will be 9-10 kilometers long; construction will take around 6 months. It will not stop the tunnels completely, but will drastically reduce the amount of weapons and other goods smuggled into Gaza.

Many suspect that Israel played a central role in Egypt’s decision. According to a former intelligence officer in the IDF, “Israel tried to do something similar in the past, but I don’t know if they’re involved.”

“I think it is very ironic, Egypt has been preaching for Gaza and Palestine, but they’re doing the same as Israel…which is to dry out Hamas until the population will want something different. [Egypt] wants a new government there—otherwise they wouldn’t do it.”

Despite the possible influences on the decision, the wall’s main purpose is to protect Egypt.

Professor __ says that “Egypt has the right to protect its borders…Hamas is smuggling drugs…weapons…even terrorists who from Al Qaeda can come in and out of Gaza through the tunnels, affecting the national security of Egypt.”

Wajdi Al Ahmed, a captain in the PA living in Ramallah, West Bank says that in addition to security concerns, Egypt is sending a strong message to Hamas.

“That’s enough playing with us. For two years Egypt has organized meetings in Cairo between Fateh and Hamas. They tried to make agreements to stop this factional fight that is destroying the Palestinian case.”

“Hamas backed out of another agreement at the last minute, Egypt is using the wall to tell them their patience is through.”

Egypt’s Role as Mediator

In 2007, Hamas staged a coup in Gaza overthrowing Abbas’ security forces there and starting a crippling, unresolved factional division. Since then, Egypt has acted as a mediator between the two groups in an attempt to restore Palestinian unity.

As soon as they get close to a resolution, Hamas finds an excuse not to sign. This leads many people to believe that this wall is Egypt’s way of telling Hamas to take the peace process with Fateh more seriously.

Gaza’s View on the Wall

Despite the international outcry against this wall, Abu Ramadan says that “it will not affect the normal people of Gaza so badly. We are working on ways to compensate and bring the essential supplies by another route. Only Hamas and the smugglers will be badly affected.”

Many Gazans also say that it won’t change the way they view Egypt.

“We believe [Egypt] is with us, they fought for us several times so they will not let us down in the end…but now they are trying to make this wall to choke Hamas because they are making problems inside of Egypt…so they have the right to protect their borders,” asserts Professor ___.

“Supporters of Hamas are condemning the Egyptian government and cursing them and making demonstrations. While the people who don’t support Hamas and want them to be finished off are happy with the wall…they welcome any steps which are taken against Hamas.”

As evidence that the wall will mostly affect Hamas negatively, and not the people, Al Ahmed asks, “If it didn’t affect Hamas, there wouldn’t be such demonstrations—and who organizes the demonstrations? Hamas…the wall will take all of Hamas’ power; all the weapons and money comes through the tunnels.”

Backlash Against Egypt’s Decision

Most of the outcry against Egypt’s decision has come from Egyptians themselves—partially spurred by Egypt’s decision not to allow any more humanitarian aid to cross their territory to reach Gaza.

“We should help Gaza with medical supplies…we know that Israel keeps them in a very bad condition and we should not be a part of that.” Ihab Ibrahim, a businessman from Sinai asserts.

However, Professor ____ said he was “in contact with people who recently came…they brought humanitarian aid with them thinking it would go to the average people. But it didn’t…it all went to Hamas members, and the medicines went to the private Hamas members hospitals.”

The tension in Egypt forced the government to start explaining their decisions.

“I have noticed an unprecedented media campaign about the blocking of aid convoys to Gaza, and trying to justify that to the Egyptian people,” Hazem Albassem, a businessman from Cairo says.

In the end, many Egyptians realize that Hamas and affiliated extremist groups could pose a real threat to Egypt’s security.

“We need strong security measures. We know that dangerous groups try to come and make trouble here. We want solidarity with Gaza but we also need good security.” Ibrahim says.

Gaza’s Future

Those same groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, have used the tunnels to travel in and out of Gaza. If they become more of a presence there they will not only affect Egypt’s security, but the security of the Gazan people as well.

Along the same lines, if Hamas continues to use the tunnels to smuggle weapons into the territory to use against Israeli civilians, they will not be helping the Gazan people either. Instead, it may lead to another war with Israel—which could be even more devastating than Cast Lead.

What Gaza needs now is not tunnels—at the moment they are doing more harm than good for the civilian population. However, if Egypt closes the tunnels Israel must ease the blockade on the territory.

Fayek reminds us “if you say these tunnels and aid are illegal or used for resistance and you want to close the tunnels, you have to see the human side of it for us Gazans…we still need essential items. Its winter now and there’s no gas, no fuels or any kind of heating.”

“If you want to close the tunnels, you must find a legal way of getting humanitarian aid into Gaza and to the people.”

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