Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 December 2009
Issue No. 978
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Beyond the wall

Is Egypt fencing off Gaza or is it distancing itself from the Palestine cause for now? Dina Ezzat seeks an answer

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Palestinians observe heavy machinery at work on the Egyptian side of Rafah, on the border with Gaza

Almost on the eve of the Israeli war on Gaza, Egypt is again weathering a storm on its eastern borders with the Gaza Strip under harsh Israeli siege.

On the one hand, Cairo is denying access to national and international non-governmental convoys that demanded access into the Gaza Strip through the Egyptian border.

The Foreign Ministry issued two consecutive statements on Monday and Tuesday to voice rejection of appeals forwarded by some humanitarian organisations to access Gaza. According to the Foreign Ministry, the rejection was prompted by the failure of the concerned organisations to fully abide by the regulations required for permits to be issued.

Security sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on conditions of anonymity attributed the rejection of the Egyptian government to the association between some of the concerned national and international organisations to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. "We are willing to be responsive to demands of humanitarian organisations but we cannot turn a blind eye to the attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas to use the situation in Gaza to stir unrest on the Egyptian borders," one source said.

Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood sources did not deny association with attempts to render humanitarian assistance to the economically suffocated Gaza Strip. However, they firmly denied any intention whatsoever to use the strictly humanitarian exercise to serve political purposes.

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say that the situation is already tense on the borders. One source who asked for strict anonymity said that Egyptian security has concrete evidence that Hamas activists have found their way through tunnels, illicitly built between Gaza and the Egyptian territories, into the Sinai Peninsula.

According to the same source, "these elements are there to test the ground for a potential massive crossing of thousands of Palestinians into the borders to protest the construction of the security wall that Egyptian authorities are constructing on the borders with Gaza."

The wall, Egyptian officials have argued, is part of a wider security scheme that includes the instalment of US-provided tunnel detectors on the borders.

The same officials argue that the purpose of this exercise is twofold: first to honour Egyptian commitment to prevent smuggling through its borders into Gaza, especially of arms that Israel complains are stored by Hamas. Then, to prevent any possible smuggling of arms into Egyptian territories and to prohibit any illegal crossing of Gaza citizens as had happened in January 2008.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Presidential Spokesman Suleiman Awad were explicit in a sequence of statements in underlining "Egypt's right to take whatever measures to protect its own borders in accordance with the prerequisites of Egyptian national security".

"The sovereignty of Egyptian territories are simply sacred and Egypt cannot undermine this sovereignty under any pretext," Awad said.

Egyptian officials have shrugged concerns raised by humanitarian activists over the negative impact of the new security wall on the harsh humanitarian situation in Gaza. "Whether we like it or not the tunnels that are built illicitly between Gaza and Egypt help bring in food and medicine -- even if they are also used to smuggle arms," one international humanitarian official said.

Information obtained by the Weekly indicates that the "security wall" is mainly a block of thick steel that is built in phases. As sources say, the process has been put on hold to avert tension in view of the anger demonstrated by Palestinians in Gaza.

On Monday thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza to protest against the construction of the wall that they said would only worsen the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel.

Last year, Palestinians demonstrated against the determined Egyptian position to keep its borders with Gaza closed during the 22-day Israeli Operation Cast Lead on Gaza.

Today, Hamas sources say that they take offence at the Egyptian measures especially that they come at the end of over a year of tight restrictions imposed by the Egyptian authorities on the operation of the Rafah crossing.

Moreover, Hamas sources suggest that by taking this step Egypt is in fact sending a negative message to the resistance movement about Cairo's intention to cut itself off from the Palestinian predicament.

"This is not the case," argued an Egyptian diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld. According to this diplomat the security measures undertaken by Egypt on its borders with Gaza are not designed to antagonise Hamas but rather to spare Egypt from being dragged by Israel into the quagmire of taking responsibility for Gaza. "Israel wants to throw Gaza in our face and we are simply telling Israel that as an occupying power it has responsibilities to honour," he stated.

According to the same official the visit of General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to Israel on Sunday catered partially for this matter. Suleiman, the same officials suggest, also aimed to get Israel to agree to commit to the ease of the siege imposed on Gaza in case of the completion of the Palestinian swap deal. "But this deal looks very likely one day and very unlikely the following."

Meanwhile, concerned Egyptian officials say that Egypt is far from disassociating itself with the Palestinian cause. Consultations, they add, are conducted between Cairo and several Arab and Western capitals to solicit some political movement that could produce the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. "Unless negotiations are resumed it is unlikely that Israel would try to improve the situation in Gaza," a diplomat said.

Egyptian sources in Washington say that plans are underway for Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit to visit Washington by mid-January. The visit, they say, would try to examine a possible way out of the current political stalemate that is caused by the failure of the US administration to get Israel to commit to a full freeze of illegal settlement construction in occupied Palestinian territories.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is still committed, Palestinian diplomats say, to condition the resumption of negotiations with Israel on the settlement freeze.

"There are alternatives that are being examined. One possible scenario is for Israel to pass authority over more Palestinian territories to Abbas in return for upgraded security arrangement on his part," said one source who spoke to the Weekly from Washington. He added that should this scheme be considered seriously by the Palestinian Authority and by concerned Arab capitals then that might offer a by-pass to the issue of settlement freeze.

Development, or rather the lack thereof, on the Palestinian front was expected to be a top agenda item during the talks that President Hosni Mubarak held during a three-leg Gulf tour that started in the United Arab Emirates, and that also included Saudi Arabia and ended in Kuwait this week.

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