News that Egypt is building a secret underground wall to separate itself from the Gaza Strip and its troubled people is full of interesting implications. This wall, said to be half built already, will be seven miles long and sixty feet deep. All concerned are denying the news (of course), but progress on the wall appears to be real.
Designed and implemented with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it is made of impenetrable reinforced steel that has been tested and proven to be bomb-resistant and impossible to drill or cut through. It is made up of slabs that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The wall will slash through and block a vast network of tunnels that Palestinians use to smuggle many items of everyday life they have been deprived of by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade—oh, and also to smuggle terrorists and their increasingly sophisticated weapons.
Egypt initially condemned Israel’s own security barrier, but now it sings a different tune, saying that anyone has the right to erect a security fence to protect his own property and people. Egypt has already done that and strengthened the fence above ground between itself and Gaza, since a massive influx of hundreds of thousands of Gazan Palestinians who broke through parts of the barrier and streamed into Egypt in early 2008.
This influx included Hamas terrorists who were plotting against targets within Egypt, as well as many radicalized Gazans who wanted to ally themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood, a longstanding Islamist threat to the Egyptian government. Egypt obviously does not want these sorts of Palestinian refugees, and it did its best to send all the hundreds of thousands of them back.
But in fact, it has never wanted any of the Palestinian people. Egypt ruled over the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967, and in those nearly two decades did not lift a finger to absorb any of the Palestinians into Egyptian society. This was in contrast to Jordan, which did admit many Palestinians in the same period, during which it controlled the West Bank.
And of course, it is in stark contrast to the stance and actions of Israel toward the Jewish refugees who were driven from almost every Arab country in the wake of Israel’s war of independence. There were hundreds of thousands of them, forced out of lands and nations where they had dwelt for many centuries, and struggling little Israel absorbed them all.
But the Gazans, many of whom were refugees from Israel’s first war with Egypt, wanted to enter that vast and populous country but could not find a new home among their Egyptian brethren, even while Egypt ruled over them. Egypt also steadfastly refused to take Gaza back under its wing when Israel gave back the Sinai in exchange for peace in 1979.
After the Oslo accords in the early nineties the Gazans were supposed to rule themselves, but the Palestinian Authority never really succeeded in establishing a government there, and after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, elections there led to civil war, and Hamas brutally drove its Palestinian rivals out of the territory.
Nevertheless, the world blames only Israel, which has continued to try to enforce a blockade around Gaza, turning it into what many view as a huge prison. However, to the extent that it is a prison, the guards have always been both Israeli and Egyptian. It’s just that Egypt’s commitment has been rather indifferent at times. Until now.
This enormous new steel barrier will not stop all smuggling, but it will slow it down. Gazans can tunnel deeper than sixty feet, but it will take a while, and all the currently existing tunnels will be abolished–not by Israel, but by Egypt.
One lesson here is that the Middle East is a dangerous place for everyone in it. Extremism such as exists in Gaza (fomented by Iran) and Southern Lebanon threatens not just Israel, but Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the emirates, and of course also Egypt.
Egypt is reacting accordingly, and its response shows a strange similarity to Israel’s own attempts to protect itself. Perhaps in time there will be echoes of sympathy as well as wall-building between these two old enemies, and perhaps that sympathy can warm up what for thirty years has been a pretty cold peace.