Egypt's wall to block Gaza tunnel smuggling

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Egypt is building an underground steel barrier along the border with Gaza to try to block smuggling tunnels. But as Aya Batrawy reports, people on the Egyptian side aren't happy about their government's construction.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is the World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Egypt is building a steel wall along its border with the Gaza Strip, and today, a spokesman for Hamas urged Egypt to stop it. As is always the case in the Middle East, a little history helps to understand what's going on. Hamas was elected as the ruling party in the Palestinian enclave three years ago. It seized control of the territory a year later. And since then, Israel has imposed a blockade, which remains in place. But a network of tunnels from Egypt to Gaza provides a pathway for commercial goods and weapons to get through. Aya Batrawy went to the Egyptian side of the border to see how construction of the barrier is proceeding.

AYA BATRAWY: Music blasts from trucks that drive up to the tunnels. These trucks have no license plates, and they don't travel on the main roads. Their windows are tinted black. I'm traveling in one of those trucks with a Bedouin named Abu Sohaib. He lives in North Sinai, just a few miles away from the border with Gaza. He makes a living smuggling goods through the tunnels. He keeps a rifle in the truck.

ABU SOHAIB: It's a Russian Kalashnikov, Abu Sohaib says.

BATRAWY: He says he carries it just in case Egyptian officials try to stop him when he's ferrying goods to the border. But he says officials on the Egyptian side turn a blind eye to much of the smuggling. Or at least they did until a few weeks ago. That's when the government began construction on what's expected to be a steel barrier sunk deep into the ground along the border. On this day, it's not possible to get close to the construction, but Abu Sohaib and I stand at the top of sand dunes and look over with binoculars. He says he can see a crane that's digging along the border. It's right next to some homes. Egypt is believed to be building the underground barrier to curb smuggling between Rafah and Gaza. Observers here say Egypt hopes the construction will pressure Hamas, which controls Gaza. Relations between Hamas and the Egyptian government have been tense for years. Some suggest Egypt's tunnel barrier is largely a retaliation against Hamas for refusing to sign an Egyptian-brokered deal with the rival Fatah Party. But Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossam Zaki maintains the construction is in the interest of Egypt's national security.

HOSSAM ZAKI: It is a very strange situation where the bulk of the blame is put on Egypt, as if Egypt is responsible both on the siege and the continuation of the siege. Israel and Hams bare a fundamental responsibility on the issue of the situation faced by the Gaza population.

BATRAWY: Israel says Hamas uses the tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza. So Israel has launched air strikes to destroy the tunnels. But many in Egypt consider them a lifeline to Gazans living under the blockade. Smugglers bring in a range of goods, including food, fuel, and cattle, as well as, weapons. Abu Sohaib says blocking the tunnels would create more hardship for people in Gaza.

ABU SOHAIB: This is more than injustice. These are people under a blockade and have been through war. And now America wants to prevent them from getting the little bit of food they get.

BATRAWY: He mentions "America" because there are rumors here that the U.S. is involved in the barrier construction. That's not confirmed. And calls to the U.S. military for comment have not yet been returned. But the in the past, the U.S. government has offered Egypt technical advice and funding to help block the tunnel smuggling. For the World, I'm Aya Batrawy, near the Rafah Border, Egypt.