The Rabbi, the Priest, the Imam and Egypt’s Steel WallBy Mohammed Omer
A picture taken from the Palestinian side of the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah shows heavy machinery at work on the Egyptian side of the border installing an underground steel wall to block tunnel access to Egypt, Dec. 31, 2009. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
THE STEEL WALL Egypt is building along its nearly nine-mile border with the Gaza Strip extends almost 60 feet underground. Its purpose is to prevent Palestinians from digging the tunnels that have become Gaza’s only lifeline.
“The steel wall is a serious threat that will make life impossible for us here in Gaza,” said Abu Ayman, one of thousands of workers at the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The 41-year-old man, who declined to give his full name, explained that this is the only job that allows him to feed his four children, wife and two elderly parents. “What do you expect us to do,” he asked, “when there is a high rate of unemployment, and no other means of survival?”
Normally, Abu Ayman said, he would prefer to take on border-crossing and luggage-handling work, but “since the world does not allow it on the ground, we have to survive under the ground. It’s not easy—and it’s a very risky job—but it pays well, despite digging 20 meters underground and crawling a few hundred meters while digging, which causes pain and injuries to my knees.”
In July 2008, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was consulting with Egypt on the wall project. Despite an international outcry—with human rights groups charging that this latest wall “contributes to the cruel plan to further isolate Gaza’s population and violates their rights as an occupied people under the Fourth Geneva Convention”—the project has proceeded. According to media reports, the steel wall was designed and manufactured in the U.S. and will take 18 months to complete. Assembled like a jigsaw, it has been tested to ensure it is bomb-proof. An Egyptian security official denied these reports, but refused to comment further.
It is well known that, since all Gaza’s crossing points into Egypt and Israel have been closed since Hamas won the January 2006 parliamentary election, Palestinians have had to dig hundreds of underground tunnels to counter Israel’s ongoing siege by importing their basic necessities from Egypt (see Jan./Feb. 2009 Washington Report, p. 19). Issa Al Nasshar, Rafah’s mayor in the Hamas-led government, has estimated that 400 tunnels run under Gaza’s border with Egypt, employing 15,000 people and bringing in $1 million in desperately needed goods every day.
“The siege on the people of Gaza will be further exacerbated by the new wall of steel,” said Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a participant in the Gaza Freedom March, after having spent some days on the Gaza border and denied entry. “The wall of steel and the brutal occupation of the Palestinian people supported by Egypt and the United States while the international community remains silent, violates human decency, international law and any hope for peace.”
“I wonder how the unarmed people of Gaza can pose a threat to the security of Egypt,” mused renowned Islamic scholar Dr. Yousef Al Qaradawi in a Friday sermon broadcast from Qatar’s Omar bin Khatab mosque. Calling on Egypt to halt construction of the controversial steel wall, he added, “We have been criticizing Israel for constructing a wall around Israeli settlements. Now we are doing the very same thing. We are in fact competing with Israel by deciding to construct a steel wall.”
Qaradawi expressed the hope that wisdom would return to the rulers of Egypt and that they would abstain from this move which, he said, amounts to a “premeditated criminal act.”
“I pray that Allah will show the right path to the Egyptian authorities. I hope they will correct their stance and do what every sensible Arab or Muslim would do,” he added. Furthermore, Imam Qaradawi said, “It is a pity that millions of pounds have been pumped into constructing this wall while unemployment remains so high in Egypt and many Egyptian people are struggling hard to find their daily meals.”
The issue of the wall has caused heated debate and disagreement among various Muslim scholars. In response to a statement made by the imams of Al Azhar University, Egypt’s most prestigious Islamic theological institution, who did not condemn the wall, Hamas marshaled Muslim scholars who decreed that the steel wall is haram, or forbidden.
Father Manuel Musallam, the senior Roman Catholic priest in Palestine, agrees with Imam Qaradawi. “We should remind the world that this siege is not only affecting the lives of 10 or 20 people,” he said. “It is 1.5 million Palestinians who are suffering every single day. Any obstacle put in our face,” he added, “is an obstacle in the face of our liberation.”
Given the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to bring together Arab states and broker a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, it was ironic to hear Egypt’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mahmoud Ouf, speaking at the unveiling of the new Egyptian Cultural Center in Riyadh, publicly dismiss charges that the wall being built by his country is aimed at starving the people of Gaza. The Arab News quoted him as saying, “Forced starvation is not possible because 95 percent of Gaza’s food, medicine and electricity do not come through these tunnels, but via crossing points along the border with Israel.”
The Egyptian diplomat failed to note, however, that Israel continues to prohibit most food items (except for flour and butter and other basic necessities), medicine and building materials from entering Gaza, and also controls electricity, which remains intermittent. Ambassador Ouf further maintained that the wall was not intended to force Hamas to resume peace talks with Israel.
Once completed, the steel wall would cut off besieged Gaza’s last lifeline. If that happens, said Father Musallam, “We will all die. But we will never die as slaves to others, nor in fear of American and Israeli hegemony. We will dig deeper in the ground, or go by sea. This steel wall will never stop our freedom,” he vowed.
Recognizing the role Egypt has played in the past, however, Father Musallam still doubts that Egyptians oppose freedom for the Palestinians, now or in the future, and has consistantly refused to accuse Egyptians of being traitors, as others have. ”We have shared a mouthful of food in the past, and we will share it again,” he said. “Egypt has always been there in the tough times.
“No Palestinian child has died yet due to shortages of food, and we will never allow it to happen,” vowed Father Musallam, who added that it is Israel alone which stands in the face of freedom for Palestinians.
According to Rabbi Gottlieb, such separation walls “are an abomination to every religious principle held sacred by Jewish tradition. Those of us concerned with human rights and human decency,” she added, “must continue to speak out and join our efforts at halting yet another layer of oppression piled upon a long-suffering people so that a just political solution can emerge, and all the children of the region can grow up with hope instead of fear.”
The New York-based rabbi and co-founder of Shomer Shalom Institute Network for Jewish Nonviolence has called on all Jews to resist the occupation “with every fiber of our being.”
During the night of Jan. 7, 13-year-old Mohammed Abu Hashish was killed while sleeping in the tent-door of a tunnel. Abu Ayman wondered sadly about this boy, who happened to be in the same class as his own children. He knew the boy’s hope was simply to work to help feed his family—just like Abu Ayman. “I just want to do my best,” the father said. “Advanced countries have reached the moon,” he observed bitterly, “and we are still made to dig under the ground.”