CAIRO: So, is Egypt building an underground metal wall along its Gaza-Rafah border or isn’t it?
Should we believe what we read in the Israeli press, which has sadly become a source of news about strategic and sensitive issues related to the two states’ security relations, or should we take their claims with suspicion? And if we decide not to believe the Israeli media, then should we also doubt reports by all other bona fide news sources and wire services if they too report the same news?
It all began when Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a report on Wednesday stating that Egypt was constructing a massive 20-30 meter underground barrier along its Rafah border with Gaza. The report quoted unnamed Egyptian officials and described the supposed wall as impenetrable and cannot be cut or burnt through.
No sooner did the Haaretz report appear and a slew of follow up articles began to surface on wire services such as Agence France-Presse (AFP), The Associated Press (AP) and the British BBC, where the news made it to the top stories of its Arabic radio station on Thursday morning and was the subject of a longer radio documentary broadcast Thursday night.
While not a single official statement was published about the issue in Egypt’s state-run media, Al-Shorouk daily, in its Thursday edition, quoted another unidentified security source denying that Egypt was building an anti-smuggling underground iron wall on its border with the Gaza Strip.
“Egypt is dealing with smuggling seriously and capable of stopping it without this wall, the source reportedly said.
A few hours later, AP put out a conflicting report, also quoting security sources saying that a project is underway to stem smuggling into Palestinian territory through underground tunnels.
A longer feature by AP quoted residents along the border saying that in recent weeks they have seen construction crews clearing a corridor along the frontier, then drilling deep holes. They said the workers then filled the trenches with sand. It also quoted a Gaza security official as saying that he has seen drilling machines operating on the other side of the border “equipped with an attachment to hoist metal .
Other sources – all speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal or because they were not authorized to comment – said that the digging began 17 days ago and that metal is inserted into the ground at night.
A report by AFP confirmed the news by stating that residents whose property lies along the route of the excavation were evacuated and given compensation payments promptly, which is not exactly standard procedure in Egypt.
Both reports quoted unnamed US diplomatic sources as denying having a role in any project on the Egypt-Gaza border, despite strong rumors to that effect, to the extent that some sources quoted in a BBC Arabic radio program claimed that the metal barrier was even manufactured in the US and shipped to Egypt in pieces.
What is most baffling is the total official silence on the issue. When Magdy El Daqqaq, the editor of state-run El-Helal magazine, was interviewed by the BBC on Thursday, his first response was to cast doubt on Israeli media.
But what about all the other reports?
It makes very little sense for any government to take the lack of transparency to such a level, especially in this day and age where the telecom revolution has made information available without filters at the click of a mouse. Why doesn’t the Egyptian government simply argue its case for building this barrier and treat its citizens with the respect they deserve, even if popular opinion disagrees with it?
The government could argue that this wall is there to protect Egypt’s national security from possible infiltrations. It could try to shake off the shroud of guilt that has blighted Egypt’s Gaza policy depicting it as part of the Israeli blockade that has created a dire humanitarian crisis in the strip for over almost three years.
Everyone knows that whatever Iron Curtain we try to build between us and Gaza, our fates are inextricably bound and that it will not end the smuggling taking place through a labyrinth of 9,000-10,000 underground tunnels. Everyone also knows that these tunnels would not have thrived had there been no blockade in the first place.
In a series of quotes gauging the reactions of Gaza residents that appeared on the BBC website, one resident said, “When we get a political solution, there will be no need for tunnels. I don’t think this new wall will affect the smuggling, we are talking about thousands of tunnels. It would be a disaster if it did. It’s illegal, but it’s the only way people in Gaza receive the goods they need for their daily lives.
Another said, “We have been forced to build tunnels. We consider them illegal but they allowed us to resume our lives. Finally, whatever Egypt does, the Palestinian people will overcome it. We will just dig deeper tunnels.
One Egyptian interviewed for the same story said, “To me this looks like a formula of segregation which pushes the Palestinians to support the likes of Hamas and ‘intifada’ . Nonetheless, the wall will ease one of the headaches caused to Egypt by Israel.
The point is, if Egypt is building this wall for good reason – whether it’s national security or to avert pressure from Israel and the US – and the government can make a case for it, then why not be honest and clear about what it’s doing while trying to highlight Egypt’s role as an impartial broker in this protracted peace process?
Call me naïve, but I will always believe that transparency is the best policy. A massive metal barrier can’t be kept secret for long and the sooner officials own up to it the better. If anything, this would help tear down another Iron Curtain of suspicion between us and our government and perhaps help build a desperately-needed bridge of trust instead.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.