A religious ruling in support of the construction of a massive steel wall on the Egypt-Gaza border is drawing fire from fellow clerics.
The steel wall intended to stop smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border was declared permissible in a religious ruling, or fatwa, by the Islamic Studies College of the renowned Al-Azhar institution, drawing angry responses from other Muslim figures in Egypt, including from within Al-Azhar itself.
"This fatwa is not legitimate," critical clerics of Al-Azhar said. "It contradicts previous decisions made by the Islamic Studies College in 1965 and in 1970, which prompted the defense of Palestine and the provision of assistance to Palestinians."
Egypt has started to lay the foundations for the ten-kilometer-long steel wall aimed at stopping the vast network of illegal commerce through smuggling tunnels from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip.
Cairo's decision to build the wall has drawn criticism from across the Arab world, which is censuring Egypt and accusing it of siding with the United States and Israel regarding the Palestinians.
"The issue of the wall between Egypt and Gaza is related to political calculations and considerations and should not be subject to religious interpretation," Hala Mustafa, Editor in Chief of the Democracy Review Quarterly, published by the Al-Ahram Foundation, told The Media Line. "But since this is a popular culture and a populist issue, the state has to frame it in a religious reference. People who support open borders between Egypt and Gaza refer to their own religious interpretation."
"[The issue] should only be subject to the treaty between Egypt and Israel which regulates the borders and to the understandings Egypt has with the European Union and the Palestinian Authority," she argued. "It should be subject to these treaties and understandings and at the same time to Egypt's national considerations."
"There's a problem with the overlapping of religion and politics," Mustafa said. "This is what Egypt and perhaps the whole Arab and Muslim world is suffering from."
The Egyptian Minister for Islamic Trust Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq gave his approval of the pro-wall fatwa on Saturday citing Egypt's right to defend its borders "in any way it sees fit."
He stressed that Egypt had "provided plenty for the Palestinian cause and lost hundreds of thousands of its sons in order to protect Palestine."
The Islamic Studies College ruled last Thursday that the steel wall did not go against Shari'a, or Islamic law, and upheld Egypt's right to build barriers on its territory in order to maintain its security, borders and rights.
"It is part of Egypt's legitimate rights to set up barriers, which will prevent harm caused by tunnels built underneath the Egyptian town of Rafah," the ruling said. "These tunnels are used to smuggle drugs and other things that undermine the country's security and pose harm to its interests in a way that leaves us no choice but to fight it."
Several clerics in Al-Azhar, including those in the college itself, condemned the decision to build a steel wall.
"This wall is haram (not permissible by Islamic Law)," the clerics said. "It aims to besiege the brothers in the Gaza Strip and block off all the options the Gaza Strip has to break through the Israeli siege, imposed three years ago when the crossings were closed. They prevented vital products from entering such as food, medicine and fuel, and this is a way of pressuring them to eradicate the resistance and Hamas."
Anti-wall clerics have appealed to the Egyptian government to stop building the barrier and to issue an official apology to the Egyptian people. The signatories of this appeal included a Muslim Brotherhood member, who is also a cleric at the institution.
The fact that there are differing views within the pro-government Al-Azhar institution should come as no surprise, Mustafa said. "Hard-line" clerics within Al-Azhar who have Wahhabi and Salafi inclinations are tolerated to some extent by the government despite occasionally expressing opinions contrary to the government line.
"Whatever decision they make, Al-Azhar will have to make a unified decision and this will be above the decision of any sub groups in Al-Azhar," she explained. "Al-Azhar will never take a position that contradicts the Egyptian government because it's part of the state institution. It's hard to believe Al-Azhar will take a position against the state or against government policies."
Israel restricted the passage of goods into Gaza after Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006, and further when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in June 2007.
Although Hamas controls the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing, which is the only official crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the Egyptian side in effect decides who will enter or depart. Egypt opens the border sporadically for short periods, mainly for humanitarian purposes.
Since the Gaza Strip has been cut off from most goods, Palestinians have been using tunnels to bring basic goods from the Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip.
The smuggled goods include anything from household items, money, cigarettes, gasoline, livestock and cars, to illicit materials such as drugs, terrorists, weapons and ammunition, which are allegedly amassed in the strip and used in attacks against Israel.
Israel and the United States designate Hamas a terror organization. The movement has refused to fall in line with international demands to recognize Israel, acknowledge previously signed agreements and renounce violence.
Critics of the steel wall include prominent Egypt-born cleric Yousuf Qaradawi, President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who said it was "forbidden by Shari'a."
Mustafa said such opposition was unlikely to affect Egypt's decision because Cairo was trying hard to be in the good graces of the United States, especially after Washington accused Cairo of not doing enough to halt smuggling through its borders.
"This was a major issue between Egypt and the US, and it was included in the conditions of the US military and economic aid to Egypt," Mustafa said. "A few years ago, $200 million were on hold because of the border problem with Gaza and the smuggling of arms, so I don't think Egypt will be willing to repeat this experience again."