Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Egypt Heightens Security Along Gaza Border


Al-Jazeera: Egypt Opens Gaza Border Crossing
Al-Jazeera: Activists Reject Egypt’s Gaza Offer

Al-Jazeera: Egypt Defends Gaza Wall

Asharq Alawsat: Work on Egypt-Gaza Steel Wall Moving Forward

In a move that has raised concerns by many human rights experts, Egypt has increased security along its border with Gaza. The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has long been a contentious area. It is a crucial location because it is the only Gaza border not controlled by Israel. Most tunnels used for the smuggling of goods run though this border with tacit acceptance by the Egyptian government. Above ground the crossing is often closed. In January two events refocused international attention on this border. First, two humanitarian aid convoys were launched on the anniversary of Israel’s Cast Lead offensive into the Gaza territory. Second, the existence of an underground wall being built by Egypt through the Rafah crossing was publically announced.

The Gaza Freedom March (GFM) is an international group whose mission is to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians living in the occupied territory. Over 1,300 people came together in Cairo for a series of protests. Despite initial concern that the Egyptian government would not allow demonstrations to happen, the GFM successfully held events outside the United Nations, Israeli, American, and French embassies. The group had initially planned to travel en masse to Gaza to deliver humanitarian supplies, but the Egyptian authorities cited the “security reasons and a ‘sensitive situation’” to prevent the entire group from completing the trip. Instead, they offered to allow 100 representatives to go though the crossing. The GFM initially rejected this agreement, but eventually went along with it. While the groups demands were not fully met, they still felt a sense of accomplishment. Even holding a single protest in police state like Egypt can be a major achievement. The group also signed and released the Cairo Declaration, which called for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it follows international law. These actions are similar to the ones the international community used against South Africa during the apartheid years.

At the same time as the GFM protests, another group of activists tried to reach Palestine by another route. The Viva Palestina group wanted to use the Jordanian port of Aqaba. However, officials persuaded the group to go though the Syrian port of Latakia to El Arish in Egypt then to Gaza via the Rafah crossing. This group had intended to bring 210 truckloads of humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza. Although there was some conflict with Egyptian authorities during the trip, it was in the end successful.

The second major action was the discovery that Egypt is building a major wall along the Rafah crossing. This is not a wall in the typical meaning of the word, it is underground and meant to disrupt the tunnels that bring in supplies to Gaza. All types of items are brought into the territory from fresh produce, to automobiles, to people. According to the mayor of Rafah there are around 400 tunnels that employ about 15,000 people and bring in around 1 million dollars of goods per day. The wall will run a reported 10 or 11 kilometers long and extend up to 18 meters deep. It is made of thick steel and is reported to be impossible to burn though with conventional welding torches. While work on the wall is thought to have started in November, it was not until recently that the public was made aware of it.

In the short term, it seems unlikely that Egypt will open the Rafah crossing permanently, even in a limited fashion. At the same time, Israel has done nothing to suggest it will ease its restrictions on Gaza. For the people of Gaza, the international attention that these events bring is comforting, but does not bring them closer to a resolution for their problems.

Discussion Questions
1) How have international NGOs improved the plight of the people of Gaza? In what ways have they helped bring international attention to this situation?
2) In what ways is the wall Egypt is building like the one that Israel has constructed in the West Bank? How is it different?

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