It seems that the Egyptian government is determined in its stance towards continuing the construction of the “Steel Wall”, regardless of the wide local and international dissent; and regardless of the resulting aggravation of suffering for the approximately 1.5 million Palestinians besieged in Gaza Strip.
No doubt that the American-Israeli pressures are playing a role in constructing this wall, but the Egyptian government has its own motivations as well, since it has been continuously disturbed with Hamas’ rule in the Strip, taking into consideration Hamas Muslim Brotherhood ideology, its insistence on the resistance, and its refusal to sign -till date- the Egyptian Reconciliation Document. All this push the Egyptian government towards exerting additional pressures on Hamas to forcefully respond to the Egyptian demands, or, bring down its rule in the Strip to a failure.
The wall will cause increased suffering for the Gazans, but it is little expected to seriously affect the stances of Hamas leadership. Instead, it might distort the image of the Egyptian Government on the local Egyptian, Palestinian, Arab and Islamic fronts, in addition to that among the International supporters and sympathizers with the Palestinian cause.
The construction of the Iron Wall was first reported in Haaretz newspaper on 9/12/2009. The newspaper said that Egypt is building a “massive iron wall along its border with the Gaza Strip… nine to 10 kilometers long, and will go 20 to 30 meters into the ground…
Later, the wall was described by Karen Abu-Zaid, the former UNRWA general commissioner, as stronger than Bar Lev line, noting that the cost of the construction will be covered fully by Washington, and expressing her sorrow for the participation of the Egyptian government in such a scenario.
The Egyptian “narrative”, or more appropriately said, the Egyptian “reaction” towards the news that began to spread, has passed in three phases:
First: Complete Silence, where the Egyptian government officials have abstentiated from responding to the various news and comments, even sometimes denying the existence of such a thing, or deny their knowledge with the whole issue.
Second: This stage started after numerous media stories reported on the wall construction lively with pictures and eye-witnesses. In this stage, the Egyptian officials inclined towards minimizing the importance of the wall, claiming that these are merely some construction works of the armed forces, within the latter’s efforts to “bolster the national Egyptian security,” with “Egyptian motivations and by Egyptian hands”; denying the “allegations” about the construction of a steel wall, and that this construction is done to satisfy the American demands and to serve the Israeli security.
Third: Responding to the different sides and parties that criticized the Egyptian stance or requested the halt of the construction process. This response was multi-channeled and employed various tools. It was more of a counter-attack, and included the following:
1. Minimizing the impact of the wall, and not referring to it as the “steel wall” but rather as in speaking about “constructions” and “construction works” taking place near the borders; in an attempt to spread some ambiguity towards the developments on the Egyptian-Palestinian borders; in addition to avoiding comments about the specific details mentioned in the media in this regards.
2. Working towards distancing or “disengaging” these “constructions” and their purposes and goals, from the Israeli security concerns that were included in the security agreement arranged by former Israeli Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni and the American President George Bush, in the latter’s last “fifteen minutes” of his administration’s term.
3. Continuous assurance of Egyptian notions of sovereignty; that what Egypt is doing is inside its own land and within its borders, and within its right to “preserve its national security”,… along with other similar legal notions that do not take into consideration -not at all- the special conditions of the besieged Gaza Strip, the suffering of its population, and the continued closure of crossings, including Rafah crossing.
4. Trying to establish any link between the attacks that targeted Egyptian tourist areas in Sharm ElSheikh, Taba and Dahab, and what Egypt claims to be a “reinforcement” of its borders and national security; without succeeding in providing at least one evidence for a Gazan responsibility on any of these attacks, neither in their planning, nor in their implementation, or the people who perpetuated them and the arms they got, etc. This reminds with the Israeli allegations that the Gaza Strip has become a shelter for Al-Qaeda and “International Jihad”.
5. Exploiting the fanatical party spirit among the Egyptians against the Palestinians in general, i.e., not only against Hamas. Some of the Egyptian official media has launched campaigns with the implied message that the Egyptian security, sovereignty and authority, are threatened by the Palestinians in Gaza Strip.
6. Involving the “official” ideological and religious apparatus, where the Azhar Grand-Mufti has issued a fatwa in favor of building the wall. Unfortunately for them and for the Mufti, is that none of the Muslim Scholars worldwide has supported this fatwa except the Minister of Religious Affairs in Ramallah’s caretaker government.
The Wall and the “Hidden Stitch”
The angry reactions against the “Steel Wall”, whether inside or outside Egypt, were not enough to convince the Egyptian leadership to backtrack from its position and halt the construction works. What happened was exactly the opposite, where the Egyptian President personally pledged to continue building the “facilities”, and he decided personally to get into the political and media debate, issuing statements against Hamas and its alliances and friends, directly and indirectly. This raised questions among the observers, about the secrets behind this insistence on behalf of the Egyptian leadership to construct this “Wall of Shame,” as named by Egyptian politicians and intellectuals.
Some sources reasoned this Egyptian stance to an earlier commitment pledged by Cairo during the political and diplomatic negotiations to stop the “Lead Cast” Israeli War on Gaza; when Israel requested American, European and Egyptian guarantees to end the import of arms and weapons, and all material that could be used in making arms or weaponry, into the Strip; as a condition to stop its war. The United States, France and other European Countries undertook the water censorship in the two seas, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, while Egypt was requested to intensify its watch along the terrestrial borders with Gaza. Washington and Paris pledged to provide Egypt with the necessary financial and logistic support to intensify measures against the tunnels and borders, in addition to increasing watch over the coastal areas that are near the Palestinian coast.
Noteworthy is that Cairo was not a part of the American-Israeli security agreement, and this was a disturbing issue for the Egyptian leadership in being excluded from an agreement that included security measures on its own land; but eventually the Egyptian government found itself inclined to respond to these arrangements, and translate them on ground, thus serving the very-demanding “Israeli security concept”. This was even expressed by Israeli officials recently, when they described what Egypt is doing as “the best service for Israel’s security”.
In explaining the Egyptian behaviour, political and strategic analysts mention a number of reasons that could be behind the Egyptian government’s choice of constructing the wall. These reasons and motivations could be classified into two main categories:
1. Long-range factors: also classified into two categories: the first related to the Israeli and American pressures on Cairo; these pressures that have become one of the main Egyptian foreign policy determinants since the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty that imposed security, military and political restriction on Egypt; in addition to the Egyptian leadership self-inclination to respond to the “American Strategy” in the region for various considerations of its own.
The second category within these factors is related to the internal Egyptian policy, specifically in what relates to the issues of “rule inheritance” and “relationship with Islamic movements”. The Egyptian system is giving the issue of inheritance increased priority, seeking to pass it, if not with American support, then at least without an American or Israeli objection. On the other hand, the Egyptian system views Hamas from the perspective of being an extension to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement, or another face of the same coin, thus it assumes an interest in putting all possible obstacles in Hamas’ path, or in both MB and Hamas path; as it specifically believes that bringing down Hamas’ rule in Gaza would be the “evidence” on the “failure of Islamic rule” and “ineligibility of the MB ideology” in ruling, and political participation, etc.
2. Direct Reasons: In this context, the Egyptian Government is seeking many tactical goals, the most important of which is:
a. Stifling Hamas in Gaza Strip and provoking the Palestinian public opinion in Gaza against Hamas; in a prelude to isolate it and bring its rule down, claiming thus the failure of its experience in rule and governance.
b. “Taming” Hamas, and draining all its external support sources, financially and militarily; especially that Hamas movement currently is in essential need for improving and recovering its military arsenal, after the three-week exhaustive war with Israel, and in anticipation of future Israeli aggressions. Tunnels were one vital channel in this context.
c. Coercing Hamas to “respond” to the Egyptian attempts to monopolize the “Palestinian file” with its different issues and dossiers. The Egyptian leadership that discovered the recoil of their regional role very late, is trying to restore this role and get some of the papers back in its hands.
d. Punishing Hamas for not signing the Egyptian Reconciliation Document; as the latter seemed to Egypt as a signal of autonomy and relative independence in dealing, and this was not the case with any of the Palestinian factions before, thus it disturbed the Egyptian diplomacy, and increased its anger at Hamas; this anger was expressed by the two most powerful figures in the Egyptian political system: the president and the head of intelligence services.
e. It is possible that an additional reason for punishing Hamas is the latter’s acceptance of a German mediation in the prisoner’s deal of Gilad Shalit, the issue that was viewed as a replacement of the Egyptian mediation, and an exposition of the Egyptian failure in handling that issue.
The most probable scenario currently is the continued construction of the wall, as it is not expected that the Egyptian government will retreat from its position in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, it is expected that the construction works will fasten and increase in the coming period, and that the Egyptian leadership will continue playing on sensitive Egyptian party spirit cords, and the rhetoric of “sovereignty” and “reinforcing the national security.”
The above scenario will remain in effect, as long as the campaigns condemning the wall and objecting against its construction, has not reached the level of convincing the Egyptian policy-maker that this step will incur it losses more than gains; especially as Egypt is losing much of its credibility among Arabs, Muslims, and international supporters and sympathizers with the Palestinian rights, already because of its closure of Rafah crossing and participation in the siege on Gaza Strip.
Unfortunately, the current circumstances indicate that the rate of construction is much faster than the rate of condemnation and response.
Possible Implications could go in two directions:
1. Further pressure on Hamas: It is doubtless that the completion of the Wall construction will have severe repercussions on Hamas, its Government, and the population of Gaza Strip alike.
From the security and military perspective, the Wall will serve some of the purposes that were behind the construction of the Separation Wall in the West Bank. The latter did inarguably cause a retreat in the Palestinian attacks against the Occupation, and limited the capability of the resistance factions to “smuggle” arms and men to areas inside the Green Line. The new Wall, named by the Egyptians themselves “The Shame Wall,” will serve such purposes.
On the humanitarian level, the Wall will increase the suffering of the Gazans, since it will tighten the stifling siege on the Strip from “five sides,” causing the Strip to lose its major channel of importing its vital needs currently, as around 60% of the Strip’s medical and food needs come through the tunnels.
On the political level, it is expected that the completion of the Wall construction will have direct implications on reinstating political and diplomatic efforts on many tracks: the internal Palestinian dialogue and the reconciliation, Shalit and the prisoners exchange deal, Gaza’s crossing and the reconstruction process. Egypt and other Arab and international parties will “capitalize” on the Wall to compel Hamas for concessions in these issues. The movement that have been sturdy until the moment in all of its positions, and on-ground, has surprised with its ability many observers, politicians and stakeholders who expected its failure in a short (4-5 months) period range; especially with the siege, the sanctions, the war, and internal and external collusive scenarios. It is expected that Hamas will be under yet a new harsh test in the coming few months.
2. Counter-Pressure on Egypt: On the other hand, the various sides (not Hamas only) will find themselves in a critical position that requires them to react on the above-mentioned issues as well. The Egyptian Leadership will be “officially” a partner in Gaza’s besiegement and will face an increased tide of rage and anger in Egypt and Palestine, and outside them, because of its role. Additionally, it is burdened with internal crises that affected negatively its image. Gaza Freedom movements and international activists calling for lifting the siege will intensify their solidarity activities and campaigns, thus embarrassing all sides “partners” in implementing such “ill-reputed scenarios” according to Karen Abu-Zaid.
The Palestinian Authority is currently in quandary of the failed/dead peace process, and the end of “negotiations is life” option, added to Netanyahu’s continued belittlement of its “extremely modest” demands (freezing settlements secretly and only for few months), and his tendency to terminate the Palestinian “dream” of liberation and independence with a mere recognition of the two-state solution.
Similar is the case in Washington, where the American President is looking desperately for a success, any success, domestically or internationally, and stumbling always in the embarrassing position of “apologizing,” often with excuses of lacking enough knowledge or mis-assessment. Mitchell’s return to the Middle East that is scheduled to begin with confidence-building efforts, can no more ignore the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza Strip. The American envoy will find himself required to include some terms on Gaza Strip in the new initiative that he should be working on; at least from a face-saving perspective. Some leakage on the new initiative and its terms supported the above mentioned speculation.
2. Launching and intensifying media, public and cultural campaigns that show the negative impacts of the wall and the siege, and the aggravating humanitarian suffering of the people in Gaza.
3. Proceeding with possible legal actions against all forms of besiegement of the Palestinian people, including the Steel Wall.
4. The Egyptian Government to restore its leading role in supporting the Palestinian people, protecting their rights and mitigating their suffering; and not the opposite.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations sincerely thanks Areeb Al-Rintawi, manager of Jerusalem Center for Political Studies in Amman, for writing the original text on which this assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on January 2009