Reporting from Cairo — An underground barrier to prevent tunneling by smugglers along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip has been dubbed a "wall of shame" by Arab writers and politicians who charge that Cairo is siding with Israel in isolating the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the seaside enclave.
Construction on the 100-foot-deep steel wall began a few weeks ago, but the Egyptian government didn't publicly acknowledge the project until the weekend. Officials defended the effort against accusations that it was an affront to Palestinians by the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which opposes Hamas, the militant group ruling Gaza.
"Whether it is a wall, sensors or tapping devices . . . what matters is that Egyptian territory must be protected," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was quoted as saying by Al Ahram al Arabi weekly magazine. "Whoever says Egypt is imposing its control on the border, we tell them this is Egypt's full right."
The controversy highlights Egypt's close geographical and emotional ties to the Palestinians, but also the complex political dilemma it faces in attempting to undercut Hamas. The construction comes at a time when Egypt is wary over Hamas' ties to Iran and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also as Egyptian officials are pushing for unity between Palestinian parties and a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Egypt has tightened its border with Gaza since Hamas gained control of the coastal strip in 2007. But the smuggling tunnels -- transporting goods as varied as weapons and baby food -- were considered lifelines to Palestinians who faced shortages because of Israel's siege of the territory.
"It is a wall of shame being built by Egypt on the borders with Gaza," wrote Ibrahim Issa, chief editor of daily newspaper Al Dustour. "It is like a total obedience to the American recommendations. We are opening our territories for a barrier that only serves and supports the Israeli and U.S. policies."
Issa, a frequent government critic, pointed out that regardless of his and many Egyptians' political persuasions, building the wall is a clear example of Egypt's authoritarianism.
"Unlike in Israel, where constructing a wall separating its territories from Gaza and the West Bank was debated in parliament and in the media before it was given the thumbs up, our regime was keen on classifying any information regarding the new wall. This is simply because Israel adopts a democratic system while Egypt doesn't enjoy such luxury," he wrote.
Similar reactions echoed across the region. They followed denunciations in January when Egypt closed its Rafah border crossing with Gaza during the Israeli invasion of the strip. The move effectively put a stranglehold on goods entering the enclave.
"We can understand it when the Israeli government uses the same methods as the Nazis in transforming the Gaza Strip into a huge concentration camp," wrote the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi. "But what we cannot understand or accept is that the Egyptian government -- and not the Egyptian people -- should take part in such a crime for fear of the Israelis, and in an attempt to appease the U.S., getting nothing in return except humiliation and dishonor."
Palestinian journalist Mustafa Sawwaf wrote on a Hamas-affiliated website: "The issue has nothing to do with Egyptian national security, and more to do with Egyptian policy.
"As far as the borders with the Gaza Strip and the steel wall are concerned, this policy is linked less to Egypt's interests and security as it has become a tool for implementing U.S. schemes in the region."
The wall, dubbed "the steel barrier" by Egyptian media, prompted a number of lawmakers to file reports to the attorney general against Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
"Our government is alleging that it is for the country's own security while it is just another effort to stiffen the ongoing siege over our fellow Muslims in Gaza," said Hamdi Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament.
Hassan is a special correspondent.