Hamas representatives who visited Cairo in November
and December for talks on a possible prisoner exchange agreement with
Israel and reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction asked government
officials about the nature of the construction work that had been
taking place for several weeks along the border between the Gaza Strip
The Egyptians, according to one of the Hamas
representatives, sought to allay the group's concerns by assuring them
that this was only routine "engineering" work.
Hamas's suspicions regarding Egypt's true intentions grew when
Palestinians living on the Egyptian side of the border were told by
some of the laborers employed in the project that it was actually aimed
at building an underground steel wall.
"The workers said that Egyptian security officers had warned
them against talking to anyone about the project," said a Hamas
legislator in the Gaza Strip. "The Egyptian authorities were evidently
concerned about how the wall would be perceived in the Arab and Islamic
world and that's why they wanted to build it without drawing
Seeking to embarrass the Egyptians and exert
pressure on them to halt the construction of the barrier, Hamas has in
the past three weeks managed to mobilize major media outlets in the
Arab and Islamic world against the project.
Hamas began organizing tours for local and foreign journalists
and photographers to the Palestinian side of the border so that they
could see with their own eyes the "engineering" work. Al-Jazeera, the
Arab world's most popular TV network, which has long been
extraordinarily sympathetic toward Hamas, took upon itself the mission
of depicting the Egyptians as being part of a US-Israeli conspiracy to
"strangle" the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
has since dedicated many of its popular programs to live debates about
the controversial wall, providing a free platform to almost anyone
willing to condemn the Egyptian regime and President Hosni Mubarak. The
controversy over the wall has even divided the most prominent scholars
of the Islamic world, triggering a "war of fatwas" in favor of and
against the project.
Hamas officials are convinced that Mubarak decided to build the
wall not only under pressure from the US and Israel, but also to punish
the movement for its negative position on the issues of reconciliation
with Fatah and the case of IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. They
also insist there is no justification for the building of the steel
wall, because Hamas has never posed a threat to Egypt's national
"When Egypt talks about a threat to its so-called national
security, it's actually talking about a threat to its regime," argued
Prof. Abdul Sattar Kassem, a West Bank academic and Hamas supporter.
"Egypt anyway has limited self-rule in Sinai because of the Camp David
Accords, which prevent the Egyptians from having a large military
He and other pro-Hamas spokesmen categorically dismiss claims
that the Egyptians are worried that Hamas would smuggle weapons into
Egypt with the purpose of undermining the regime.
"It's true that we don't like Mubarak's regime, but we are not
trying to occupy Cairo," said a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip.
"Our conflict is with the Israeli enemy, not Egypt or any other Arab
According to the legislator and several other Hamas spokesmen,
the Egyptians are seeking to "punish" Hamas for its refusal to sign an
Egyptian-brokered reconciliation accord with Fatah in Cairo last
Hamas cancelled its participation in the signing ceremony at
the last minute to protest Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas's decision not to back a resolution in the UN Human Rights
Council that would have condemned Israel for allegedly perpetrating
"war crimes" during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas boycott is said to have enraged Mubarak, who was
hoping to score points among Arabs and Muslims for succeeding where the
Saudis, Yemenis and other Arabs had failed, namely in ending the power
struggle between Hamas and Fatah.
RELATIONS BETWEEN Cairo and Hamas had already been strained
over the case of Schalit. For the past three years the Egyptians have
been trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to negotiate a deal between Hamas
and Israel to release the soldier in return for several hundred
Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Late last year Hamas decided to substitute the Egyptians with a
senior German diplomat, who is now acting as the main mediator. The
Hamas decision to dump the Egyptians in favor of the German is also
said to have angered Mubarak and his General Intelligence chief, Omar
Suleiman, who was personally involved in attempts to persuade Israel
and Hamas to agree to a prisoner swap.
A Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord and a Hamas-Israel prisoner
exchange deal would have bolstered the standing of Mubarak's regime in
the local, regional and international arenas. Mubarak was hoping to
reestablish Egypt's role as the Arab world's most influential country,
but Hamas has clearly destroyed his dream.
The anti-wall campaign in the Arab media, as well as
Palestinian demonstrations against what has become known on as the
"wall of shame," has caused severe damage to the Egyptian regime's
reputation throughout Arab and Islamic countries, where Mubarak is
being dubbed a pawn in the hands of the US and Israel. This, of course,
does not help his dream of having his son, Gamal, succeed him as
The new steel wall has put Egypt on a collision course with
Hamas, whose supporters are now promising to escalate their campaign to
stop the "engineering" work along the border. Palestinians in the Gaza
Strip said this week that increased pressure on Hamas could force the
movement to make every possible effort to tear down the underground
barrier, including the use of explosives.
With increasing tensions and skirmishes along the border, Egypt could one day be forced to launch its own Operation Cast Lead.