Egypt plays hardball with Hamas over Gaza border wall (News Feature)

Egypt plays hardball with Hamas over Gaza border wall (News Feature)

Rafah, Gaza Strip – Armoured vehicles from the Egyptian army guard the large cranes as they sink their tall drills into the ground.

From a distance they resemble oil drills – but obviously they are not prospecting for oil along the gravelly Egypt-Gaza border.

Instead, they are seemingly digging a deep underground steel wall, whose purpose is to thwart the massive smuggling of anything from food, to petrol, cigarettes, sheep, fridges, laptops and weapons through the network of tunnels dug under the border.

If successful, this invisible barrier would change the balance of power in the area, and reshuffle the cards in the hands of Hamas, the radical Islamist movement ruling Gaza, and the region’s other players.

Thus some officials in Hamas are already calling the structure the ‘wall of death.’

For Egypt, it is a matter of sovereignty and ‘dignity.’

Egyptian officials have so far only gone as far as confirming that their country is building an underground ‘engineering structure’ along the border – but they have refused to give details.

As a result, speculation is rife and tension high along the border, where angry, stone-throwing Palestinians earlier this week clashed with Egyptian border guards – one of whom was fatally shot.

No one but those involved in planning and building the anti-smuggling structure know exactly how deep it will go. Some say as deep as 30 metres. Others say 20. There is also no confirmation that it will be made of solid steel which cannot be cut or melted.

Some locals in the divided border town of Rafah even fear another solution, one that would sound simpler from Egypt’s point of view – namely, that pipes are being inserted deep into the ground, which have already penetrated through some of the tunnels causing their collapse.

They would then be filled with water from the nearby Mediterranean to flood them.

Others say they saw workers insert electrical cables into the pipes, with sensors to detect the tunnels.

Raja’a Abu Hilal, a 43-year-old tunnel owner on the Palestinian side of Rafah, is among those looking on with concern.

‘In fact, we don’t know exactly what kind of security operation the Egyptian forces are carrying out at the borderline,’ he said.

‘But we are sure that this operation is carried out against the tunnels and that this movement would of course harm our business.’

It costs between 60,000 and 80,000 US dollars and three months to build a smuggling tunnel. The total number of tunnels is not known.

Figures vary from some 400 to as many as 1,500. Rafah residents say that several dozen of them are used for smuggling rockets and other weapons. The rest are for other commodities.

The smuggling provides almost the only source of income for the internationally-isolated Hamas.

Its de-facto government in Gaza has levied taxes on all of the goods brought in through the tunnels.

Prices of the smuggled goods more than double making the short distance from the border in the south of the strip to Gaza City in the north, because the tunnel owner makes his profit, Hamas gets its share and then the shops in the city which sell them as well.

Analysts say the tunnels are Hamas’ only lifeline. The movement has consolidated its hold on Gaza since it violently seized sole control of the strip in June 2007, by overpowering the security forces of President Mahmoud Abbas’ rival, secular Fatah party.

For Egypt’s President Hosny Mubarak, where the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political opposition, having the Palestinian branch of the transnational Islamist movement run an entity on its border is seen as far from desirable.

When Hamas breached the border in January 2008 by blowing explosive holes, prompting hundreds of thousands of Gazans to flood into Egypt to stock up on goods, it was a blow to Cairo’s prestige as an Arab superpower.

For days, until order was restored, it proved unable to control its own sovereign border.

Cairo, defending the work along the border against strongly pro- Palestinian Arab domestic and regional criticism, called the tunnels a ‘direct assault on Egypt’s sovereignty.’

‘Helping the Palestinian brothers in the Gaza Strip, by all means, is a duty,’ Egyt’s Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mufid Shehab told parliament this week – but not at the price of a violation of Egypt’s international borders, national security, dignity and international pacts.

He was clearly referring to Cairo’s relations with the US, from which it receives hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid.

Washington, after last winter’s Gaza war, held intense talks with Egypt on ways to end the weapons smuggling to Gaza.

If the border structure proves effective, analysts say, it may suffocate Hamas to the extent that it could return to the negotiating table ‘on its knees’ and finally sign the Egyptian-mediated reconciliation agreement with Fatah.

That would then allow Palestinian elections to take place, which would end the West Bank/Gaza split. Ending Hamas’ grip on Gaza would be a vital Egyptian interest.

Locals in Rafah, meanwhile, say they will just dig deeper. For them, they say, the tunnels are their subterranean lifeline.