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memri
January 13, 2010 No.
580

Reactions in Arab and Muslim World to Egyptian Steel Barrier along Its Border with Gaza

By: L. Barkan*

Introduction

Throughout December 2009, it was reported in the region's media that Egypt was constructing an underground steel barrier on its border with the Gaza Strip to stop smuggling via tunnels.[1] These reports led to an anti-Egypt campaign, led by Hamas, which harshly condemned the construction of the barrier and called for it to stop immediately. Hamas held protests that led to violent incidents between the Palestinians and Egyptians on the border, and increased the state of alert on the Egyptian side.[2]

Hamas received the backing of Iran and Hizbullah, who claimed that Egypt was aiming to topple the Hamas regime. It was also backed by other countries and organizations in the Arab world, such as Syria, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, who spoke out angrily against Egypt. It seems that Egypt remains almost completely isolated, and even Saudi Arabia, considered its ally in the moderate Arab axis, has offered it almost no support.

Egyptclaims that it is not constructing a steel barrier, but is carrying out "engineering activities." It stressed that it has a right to defend itself and its sovereignty, and said that the campaign against it was a deliberate attempt by Iran and its allies to harm its status and to distract world public opinion from Iran's internal affairs and from its nuclear negotiations.

In addition to the barrier issue, Egypt was accused of preventing humanitarian aid convoys from entering the Gaza Strip[3] by not opening the Rafah crossing in an orderly fashion – thus collaborating with Fatah and with the West to undermine the Hamas government and to force it to sign the inter-Palestinian reconciliation agreement.

Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 14, 2009.

Hamas's Campaign against the "Wall of Death"

With the first reports on the building of the barrier, Hamas came out strongly against its construction and against Egypt's policy. Hamas' press and websites harshly attacked Egypt, and the movement also organized protests against the barrier.[4] In a special session devoted to the issue, held on December 23, 2009, the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza called upon human rights and judicial organizations to file lawsuits against the building of the barrier, and also urged the media to speak against it, because it tightens the siege on Gaza even further.[5]

In a December 21, 2009 press announcement, Hamas demanded of Egypt to stop building the "Death Wall" that is throttling Gaza residents, and rejected Egypt's claim that this is an internal Egyptian affair, saying that "religious, national, and humanitarian considerations make it illegitimate [for Egypt] to throttle an Arab and Muslim people," and that Egypt must not take this move that is aimed at throttling and killing Gaza rather than acting to remove the siege from it.[6]

In attempts to prevent Egypt from carrying on with the project, Hamas tried to alleviate its concerns for its security. Hamas spokesman Taher Al-Nounou said on December 21 that "Gaza's security [is dependent on] Egypt's, so it is inconceivable that we should pose a danger to Egypt... The one toying with Egypt's security is not Gaza but the Zionist occupation, which does not wish to see stability in any Arab state."[7] Hamas Foreign Minister Fathi Hammad told the Egyptian government on December 19 that Hamas was trying to stop Palestinian gunmen from shooting at Egyptian soldiers working on the wall.[8]

Yousef Rizqa, political advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya, compared the Egyptian barrier to Israel's separation fence. He wrote in the Gaza daily Filastin: "One fence, paid for by the U.S., is being built by Israel in Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to deprive the West Bank Palestinians of their right to freedom, liberty and a dignified existence. The other [fence], made of solid reinforced steel, is being build by Egypt, an Arab country, with the aim of undermining the dignified existence and the resistance of Hamas. The racist separation fence serves the interests of Israel... As for the steel fence, it [too] does not serve the interests of Egypt but rather those of Israel – so the two fences are similar in terms of their goal, the source of the funds [that pay for them], and the Palestinians' rejection of them."[9]

Iran, Syria, and Qatar Speak Out against Egypt

Condemnation of Egypt over the matter of the barrier was heard from all elements that support Hamas, including Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. On December 23, 2009, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad hinted that Egypt had a responsibility to help the Palestinian people, saying: "We [Syrians] always share... the position that demands the removal of the siege [from Gaza]. I must stress that anyone who participates in the siege on Gaza is responsible [for the shedding of] Palestinian blood."[10]

Ziyad Haidar, editor of the Syrian daily Al-Watan, accused Egypt of giving in to Israel and the U.S.: "Egypt has become an instrument of the U.S. and Israeli monitoring apparatuses that prevent the Palestinians from arming themselves and deprive them of water and even milk... We are not talking in general terms; when we say Egypt; we specifically mean the Egyptian government."[11]

The Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami also attacked Egypt, saying that the wall being constructed by Cairo's "Camp David regime" to prevent smuggling at the Gaza border proved that this regime is evil, treacherous, and inhumane in its essence. The newspaper said that because of Cairo's hostility to the Palestinians, and because of its aspiration to eliminate Hamas, it was thwarting the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation attempts, imposing on Hamas an additional term by PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas, and, together with Fatah, advancing a coup against Hamas in Gaza.[12]

The Qatari daily Al-Sharq harshly condemned the construction of the barrier, stating in an editorial: "This wall poses greater dangers than those posed by the Israeli wall that encircles the occupied West Bank, even if both walls accomplish the same thing – siege and a policy of slow death, and then submission to the wishes of Israel and America, and the promotion of a settlement that comes at the expense of the Palestinians' rights in their historic homeland, [and at the expense of] the Arab and Islamic homeland and its holy sites...

"We ask ourselves whether the prevention of the international rescue convoys from entering into the Strip via Egyptian territory, and the completion date for the Wall of Death on the Gaza border... are to be the 'secret signal' for [launching an Israeli] attack [on Gaza] – or whether this wall will become a painful symbol of the starvation of the Gaza residents, and later of their forced submission and consent to a national reconciliation [agreement] according to the Cairo document."

In another article, the paper called said, "This is a four-pronged attack on Gaza, involving France, the U.S., and Israel, with Egypt's support, aimed at erecting the Wall of Death in order to tighten the grip on the Strip residents, in punishment for their clinging to the democracy that brought Hamas to power."[13]

On December 27, 2009, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on the Egyptian regime to stop the construction of the barrier and the flooding of the tunnels[14] and to act to remove the siege – "and if it does not, [Egypt] must be made the focus of the condemnation of all the Arabs, Muslims, honorable people and free men in this world. This oppressing silence must not continue, in the face of the siege on an entire people, no matter the claims or the excuses."[15]

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt published a communiqué condemning the construction of the barrier, stating that "the regime is using failed and disproved statements, according to which the barrier [is being constructed] for Egyptian national security. Preserving Egypt's national security demands taking a stand against the Zionist threats and supporting the Palestinian people and its positions, and the removal of the siege placed on it...

"The time has come for us to reject the dictates of the Americans and the Zionists, and to meet our obligations... Therefore, we ask that the construction of the Wall of Killing be stopped... and that the Artery of Life convoy be permitted to enter Gaza immediately, in addition to the ummah's constant demand to open the Rafah crossing permanently, as a natural border crossing, and thus to end the problems of smuggling as well as other problems."[16]

Ibrahim 'Issa, editor of the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Dustour attacked the overall absence of democracy in Egypt, which permits one man alone to decide to construct the "wall of shame" between Egypt and the Gaza Strip: "The new wall of shame that Egypt is constructing on its border with Gaza... comes in the wake of the American policy that clearly serves the Israeli position... and reveals the difference between the democracy of the occupying rulers and the dictatorship of the local rulers. When Israel decides to build a wall, it conducts a dialogue amongst its parties, its society, and its press. When Israel constructed its wall, it was following a democratic decision taken by a majority in an elected parliament...

"[In contrast], in Egypt this decision is a solo decision, made by one man in a closed room without public dialogue and without turning to the parliament."[17]

Egypt Responds: We Have the Right to Defend Our Sovereignty

Egyptian official sources denied that Egypt was constructing a steel barrier, but at the same time emphasized that Egypt had the right to defend its sovereignty using any means it chose. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit said that Egypt was not building a new barrier but fixing the old fence that was breached by the Palestinians when they stormed the border (in January 2008). "There is a border that needs to be respected, and anyone who fails to do so is attacking Egypt's sovereignty," he stressed.[18]

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hassam Zaki likewise said that Egypt was not constructing a steel barrier but carrying out "engineering activities" on the border. He added: "It is Egypt that determines what [is needed] to defend its security, its borders, its land and its cities – and this issue is not subject to discussion." He clarified that, contrary to what some have claimed, Egypt's actions were not meant to punish Hamas for its refusal to sign the Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation agreement, but would have been carried out even if Hamas had signed the agreement.[19]

MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, editor of the government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, wrote: "Egypt is constructing a wall in its [own] territory, and thereby exercising its legitimate and legally-sanctioned right to defend its borders... Egypt has sovereignty over its own land, and it is inconceivable that it should give up even one meter of its territory in favor of Palestinian refugee camps, should masses of [Palestinians] choose once again to stream into Sinai after an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.

"Egypt presented to Hamas on a golden platter an excellent reconciliation agreement which would have enabled to reopen all the [border] crossings, including the Rafah crossing, and to operate them jointly with the PA. But the Islamic resistance movement [Hamas] arrogantly spurned [this proposal]..."[20]

Egyptian Government Dailies: Iran Is behind the Attacks on Egypt

In a January 9 article in Al-Gumhouriyya, Ibrahim also argued that Egypt was being subjected to an organized attack by Iran and its allies Syria, Qatar and Turkey. He wrote: "Egypt... has always been a target of empires that wanted to conquer it... Now the Persians [who live] far in the east want to conquer the Middle East, and their only way to do this is by using the same methods as the first [powers that conquered Egypt. These powers] knew that taking over Egypt is possible only by taking over Al-Sham [Greater Syria], namely modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. [To achieve this aim,] the Iranians have formed an alliance with Syria, planted Hizbullah in Lebanon, and divided the Palestinians by adopting Hamas and its positions. Now the only thing left for them [to do] is to enter Egypt or at least inject it with [sleeper] cells that will sow fear and scare away the tourists, like the Hizbullah cell [exposed by Egypt in April 2009,] whose members are currently facing trial...

"The dubious alliance against Egypt has been exposed, [and involves] Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and Syria. Tehran and Ankara, rivals until yesterday, became friends after reaching an understanding about Iraq: Turkey will get the north, [thereby preventing the establishment] of a Kurdish state, and Iran will get the Shi'ite south. Thus they divest this Arab country of its Arabness, and Lebanon is going the same way, by means of [Iran's] agent there, Hizbullah."[21]

An Al-Ahram editorial explained that the attacks of Iran and its allies on Egypt were meant to distract public opinion from Iran's internal affairs and from its nuclear negotiations: "...The minute there is a crisis inside Iran, or a crisis between Iran and the West over [Iran's] nuclear dossier, we see [this country] launching immoral attacks on Egypt and its positions.

"It seems that the doubtful and weak alliance headed by Iran, which [also] includes Hamas, Hizbullah, and the cheap mouthpiece Al-Jazeera, lost its integrity after its attempts to incite the Egyptians against their leadership failed one after the other. [These forces] fail to grasp one simple truth, namely that the Egyptian people can tell the difference between words and actions. Those who fill the world with incitement against Egypt, and try to rope it into the opposite camp using every possible means – their shame is evident both to their people and to the Egyptians, [because] not a single bullet has been fired from the occupied Golan Heights, and the leader of the [Iranian] Revolution, [Ali] Khamenei, has ordered his followers not to fight for Gaza. Moreover, Hizbullah and Damascus did not lift a finger [to help the Palestinians], but [instead] relied on the policy of bombastic statements that has never liberated any land or repelled any attack, but has only [caused] capitals to be destroyed over the heads of their innocent residents, leaving them homeless!...

"[As for] Hamas, it is maintaining the hudna and wants to stay in power at any cost, while Iran incites others, using them as bargaining chips in its negotiations with the West, in a bid to ease the pressure on its regime... The [border] crossings used to be open, according to the agreement with the International Quartet, and they can be opened [again] if the PA, which signed the agreement, returns [to operate them]. We must ask Hamas and its leaders: Does [staying] in power matter to you more than the suffering of the Palestinian people?..."[22]

'Ali Al-Din Hilal, Information Secretary of Egypt's ruling party, the NDP, likewise accused Syria and its allies of leading an attack on his country: "The attacks on Egypt's sacred principles and foreign policy are [part of] a plan led by Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah, the latter being supported by Iran. The purpose [of this plan] is to wreak havoc [in the region]."[23]

The PA Supports Egypt

In a December 19, 2009 interview with Al-Ahram, PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas expressed his support for Egypt, "which is doing everything it can to help us," and for its activity along the Gaza border.[24]

Fatah Spokesman Osama Al-Kawasme condemned the propaganda campaign waged by Hamas and its allies against Egypt. He accused Hamas of hypocrisy, since this movement is attacking Egypt while it itself maintains a hudna with Israel despite the Gaza siege. He praised Egypt's efforts to promote the inter-Palestinian reconciliation, stressing the sacrifices this country has made for the Palestinians' sake.[25]

Palestinian columnist 'Issam Murtaja stated in an article on a PLO-affiliated website that Egypt had the right to defend its security, and blamed the Palestinians for creating the situation that necessitated the building of the barrier: "Nobody has shared with us the burden of our internal arguments and fighting, and the burden of the reconciliation [process], as [devotedly] as our sister Egypt… [despite] the insults and curses that many of us have directed at our Egyptian brothers… Why do we insist on blaming Egypt for all our problems, disagreements, and political troubles? Haven't we caused this wall to be built by sabotaging the reconciliation [process] and stubbornly leaving the situation as it is?... Egypt wants security on its border, and that is its right. It wants security within its territory, without anyone making trouble there, and that is its right. It wants one Palestinian [authority], legal and stable, with which it can deal in managing the border, and that is its right. The steel wall along the Egyptian border is mainly the result of our failure and our stubbornness."[26]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor Comes Out against Hamas and Its Allies

Egypt's main ally, Saudi Arabia, expressed only feeble support for this country, in the form of an article by Tariq Alhomayed, chief editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. Alhomayed attacked the countries that assist Hamas in its struggle against Egypt: "Hamas claims that its [annual] budget for Gaza is 540 million dollars, 60 million of which comes from taxes, while the rest is foreign aid and grants. [This gives rise to] a simple question: which counties provide Hamas with such sums, considering the inter-Palestinian rift?...

"It's true that there is real suffering among the people of Gaza, but to support Hamas means mainly to increase the Palestinian's suffering... The countries that support Hamas are the ones that want to prolong the Gazans' suffering and the division among the Palestinians, and wish to use Gaza and its plight as a bargaining chip [for the advantage of] Iran. Their preoccupation with the Gaza tunnels or with the [Egyptian] wall is not due to concern over the siege on Gaza, but [only reflects] a real desire by some of them to open up a front against Egypt... By harming [Egypt], Hamas and those who stand behind it can prolong the inter-Palestinian division and later drag Egypt into wars that will wreak havoc in the entire region."[27]

"Fatwa War" on Egypt's Steel Barrier

The struggle among the various forces in the Arab and Muslim world over the issue of the steel barrier were also reflected in the religious arena inside and outside Egypt. The opponents of the barrier cited several fatwas, especially one issued by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. He stated, "Egypt's construction of the steel wall on its border with Gaza is an act forbidden by the shari'a because it is aimed at sealing all the openings into Gaza in order to tighten the siege [and increase] the hunger, the humiliation and the pressure [on its residents], so that they fall to their knees and capitulate to Israel's wishes...

"Egypt is a free [country] that has sovereignty over its territory, but [that does not mean that] it is free to help kill its neighbors and brothers, the Palestinians. This act is ruled out by Arab and pan-Arab [principles], by Islamic [values] and brotherhood, and by humanitarian [principles] and human solidarity... [Instead,] Egypt should open the Rafah crossing to the people of Gaza, for it is the lung through which they get air. [Both] the shari'a and the [Egyptian] law oblige it to do so, and it may not suffocate [the Gazans] and participate in killing them.

"The Gazans turned to these tunnels as an alternative to the [Rafah] crossing, which is closed most of the time, even to the humanitarian aid convoys. It is as though Egypt is saying to [the Gazans]: you [can] die, and long live Israel... I call upon all of Egypt's allies to pressure it to stop this unjustified crime, and I call upon the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to intervene and put an end to this catastrophe..."[28]

Fatwas against the construction of the barrier were also issued by Yemeni sheikh 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Zandani and Saudi sheikh Yousef bin 'Abdallah Al-Ahmad. The latter stated, "Building a wall which prevents the [use of] tunnels that help the Muslims in Gaza is [an act] forbidden by the shari'a. [In fact], it is one of the gravest crimes in Islam... Anyone who takes part in it, by word or deed, including even the construction workers, is a sinner."[29]

A few days after the issuing of Al-Qaradhawi's fatwa, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy issued an official statement that was regarded as a fatwa unanimously supporting the construction of the barrier. It said: "Egypt has the right to put up barriers that prevent the harm caused by the tunnels that were dug under the soil of Egyptian Rafah, and which are used to smuggle drugs and other [contraband] that threaten and undermine the security, stability and interests of Egypt... Those who oppose the construction of the wall are violating the commandments of the shari'a."[30]

Articles in the Arab press criticized this fatwa, saying it had been "ordered" by the regime, and that the regime was using its Islamic scholars to serve its political ends. Daoud Al-Shiryan, deputy secretary-general of Al-Arabiya TV, wrote in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat that the practice of "using religious fatwas to justify political decisions represents a much greater danger than any [steel] wall." He added, "The Egyptian government could have asked the religious scholars who support the building of the wall to issue independent fatwas contradicting those of Al-Qaradhawi and Al-Zandani, without turning the issuing of fatwas into part of its official political activity [by getting Al-Azhar to issue one]."[31]

The Wall Strangling Gaza Spells out the Name "Egypt"

Al-Watan (Qatar), December 25, 2009.

Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 14, 2009.

*L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI

Endnotes:

[1] Egyptian officials at first refused to respond to news about the wall, but later said that these were operations to reconstruct an existing fence, not to build a new one. The Palestinian news agency Maan called the project an "American-Israeli scheme" aimed at setting up equipment to locate deep tunnels along the border and to build an underground wall from US.-manufactured steel plates in order to prevent new tunnels from being dug. Maanews.net, December 13, 2009.

[2] Paltoday.com, January 6, 2010; Maannews.net, December 18, 2009.

[3] In December 2009 and early January 2010, the Vein of Life 3 international aid convoy made its way to Gaza. Convoy members claimed that Egypt had obstructed its progress and delayed its entrance to Gaza, which caused an uptick in anti-Egypt protests. The situation reached the point of violent clashes at the Rafah crossing between convoy members and Palestinians on the one side and Egyptian security forces on the other, during which dozens were wounded and one Egyptian soldier was killed. Maanews.net, January 6, 2010.

[4] www.paltoday.com, December 26, 2009; www.maannews.net, December 21, 2009.

[5] www.maannews.net, December 23, 2009.

[6] www.palestine-info.info, December 21, 2009.

[7] www.palestine-info.info, December 21, 2009.

[8] www.felesteen.ps, December 20, 2009.

[9] www.felesteen.ps, December 24, 2009.

[10] Al-Thawra (Syria), December 24, 2009.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria), December 29, 2009.

[12] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), December 20, 2009.

[13] Al-Sharq (Qatar), December 25, 2009, January 1, 2010.

[14] According to reports, after the building of the wall, Egypt also plans to install pipes filled with sea water in order to flood the tunnels. www.palestine-info.info, December 29, 2009.

[15] www.moqawama.org, December 27, 2009.

[16] Ikhwanonline.com, December 26, 2009. In addition, Egyptian political activists and MPs, as well as foreign activists, filed lawsuits against Egypt's president, prime minister, and foreign and defense ministers, with the aim of stopping the construction of the wall and opening the crossings to the Gaza Strip. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 5, 2009.

[17] Al-Dustour (Egypt), December 20, 2009.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 23, 2009.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), December 23, 2009. Similar statements were made by Egyptian Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shihab, who said that Egypt was carrying out "engineering activities" in order to secure its border, not seal it. He emphasized that Egypt was against the siege on Gaza and would continue assisting the Palestinians. Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), January 4, 2010.

[20] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 22, 2009.

[21] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), January 9, 2010

[22] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 4, 2010.

[23] Al-Hayat (London), January 10, 2010.

[24] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 19, 2009.

[25] www.palvoice.com, January 7, 2010.

[26] www.amad.ps, December 23, 2009.

[27] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2010.

[28] www.qaradawi.net, December 27, 2009.

[29] www.islamlight.net, December 30, 2009, www.palestine-info.info, December 21, 2009.

[30] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 1, 2010.

[31] Al-Hayat (London), January 2, 2010. It should be noted that Al-Shiryan's criticism of religious fatwas "that come to justify political decisions" comes at a time when Saudi clerics are permitting the mixing of the genders, which used to be forbidden in Saudi Arabia, following the opening of the co-ed KAUST university in Jeddah. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2744, "Saudi Cleric: The Mixing of the Sexes Is Not Forbidden in Islam," January 11, 2010, Saudi Cleric: The Mixing of the Sexes Is Not Forbidden in Islam.

Among those who criticized the Al-Azhar fatwa was Egyptian journalist Fahmi Huwaidi, who wrote that Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi had issued this fatwa very rapidly, without coordinating positions with the other members of the Islamic Research Academy or enabling them to respond. He added that the Al-Azhar statement had been ordered by Egypt's media and endowments ministers with the aim of supporting the government and countering the fatwas issued by Al-Qaradhawi and others. As such, he said, it represented an interference of politics in the domain of religion, and reflected the weakness of the Egyptian government. Al-Sharq (Qatar), January 3, 2010.

The daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated that this fatwa was a war crime against the Palestinians, and that the Egyptian barrier was even worse than the Israeli separation fence. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 5, 2010. Condemnations of the Al-Azhar fatwa were also issued by Syrian clerics, by the former head of the shari'a faculty at the University of Jordan, and by others. www.palestine-info.info, January 4-5, 2010.

On the other hand, PA Endowments Minister Mahmoud Al-Habbash supported Egypt, claiming that it is Hamas' anti-Egyptian fatwas that are political. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 5, 2010.