Cablegate: Steel Wall Criticism and Gaza Marchers


DE RUEHEG #2397/01 3641514
O 301514Z DEC 09

S E C R E T CAIRO 002397


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/22/2019

REF: A. CAIRO 2391
B. CAIRO 2396
C. IIR 6 899 0389 09
D. CAIRO 2325
E. CAIRO 1150 F. 08 CAIRO 168 G. 08 CAIRO 2502 H. CAIRO 118 I. CAIRO 3498 (2007) Classified By: DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION MATTHEW TUELLER FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) and (D)
1.(C) Key points: -- The Egyptian government continues to come under intense criticism from its domestic opposition, along with regional voices such as Hamas, Hizballah and others, for its efforts to construct an underground steel wall aimed at controlling tunneling activity. -- This mounting criticism comes as international pro-Palestinian groups gathered in Cairo and in Aqaba seeking to mark the one-year anniversary of Israel's military action in Gaza with large scale convoys and demonstrations entering Gaza to show "solidarity" with Palestinians (reftel A). Following GOE public criticism of the marchers' intentions, the GOE allowed 100 "Gaza freedom marchers" to travel to Rafah Crossing in order to enter Gaza on Dec 30 (reftel b). -- The GOE's public response to the steel wall was initially a vague denial, but as evidence of the wall has come to light, FM Aboul Gheit has taken the lead on a pugnacious and nationalistic defense of the Egypt's security posture at Rafah as well as its policy toward the demonstrators. -- The GOE is facing a difficult mix of local and regional media criticism over the wall, among other things as additional evidence of its complicity in "the siege of Gaza." The domestic political opposition here has sought to portray the GOE and President Mubarak as tools of an Israeli and U.S. agenda. Despite the criticism, the Egyptian street have been slow to organize demonstrations or protests as happened one year ago during Operation Cast Lead. STEEL WALL UNDER CONSTRUCTION -----------------------------

2.(C) The Egyptians began constructing a subterranean steel wall along the Egypt-Gaza border in early December (ref C). The wall is a $40 million MOD project, which will be 19 meters deep and 12 mm thick. MOD has frequently discussed this project with emboffs since the beginning of the year and expects to finish the project by December 2010. MOD officials have expressed confidence to us that the steel wall will be an effective anti-tunneling measure, although its actual effectiveness remains to be seen. PRESS, OPPOSITION JUMPS -----------------------

3.(C) On December 10 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the wall was being constructed in response to USG "pressure" on the GOE over smuggling. The initial GOE public reaction was via "unnamed security officials" to local media denying the existence of the underground wall. However, local criticism continued; Rafah Local City Council Member Soliman Awad claimed publicly Dec 11 the GOE was clearing trees for the purpose of installing monitoring equipment (apparently conflating the USG-funded BTADS tunnel monitoring project with the GOE steel wall). The following day, MFA Spokesman Hossam Zaki appeared on Al Mehwar, an Egyptian satellite television talk show. He took the position that the media was incorrect that a "wall was being built to separate Egypt from Gaza," and went on to say the GOE has the right to protect its borders.

4.(C) Egyptian MB parliamentary bloc spokesman Hamdy Hassan publicly demanded on Dec 15 that parliamentary leadership obtain an explanation from the GOE on the wall; Hassan criticized the GOE for taking security steps that would "serve Israel" and for standing against "resistance groups" that are historically supported in the Arab world. He also criticized GOE installation of what he called "USAID funded high tech sensors" (apparently referring to the BTADS program). On Dec 20 high-profile GOE critic Hassan Nafaa wrote a scathing op-ed "Steel Walls for a Crumbling Regime," in which he compared the steel wall to Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution (which details restrictions on who can run for president); "a regime that has blocked off its own people might expectedly build a wall to block off others," he wrote. Prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar and Al Jazeera television personality Yousef Qaradawi issued a statement Dec 28 calling the wall a "crime" under Islamic law and called on Egypt's "friends" to pressure the GOE to stop the project.

5.(U) Regionally, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah both took swipes at the GOE over the wall. On December 23 Mishal pointed out the GOE's initial denials as erroneous, and then criticized the wall as worsening the "Gaza siege." Nasrallah, meanwhile, called on the GOE to halt wall construction on Dec 28. DEMONSTRATORS COME TO TOWN -----------------------------

6.(SBU) Members of various pro-Palestinian international organizations, including "Code Pink" (American) arrived in Cairo in late December (reftel a) for the purpose of a "Gaza freedom march" through the Sinai and into Gaza via Rafah crossing. (Note: A separate group, Viva Palestine and its "Lifeline 3 Convoy" which includes British MP George Galloway, reportedly has departed Aqaba, Jordan, en route to Latakia, Syria, to eventually arrive in the Sinai city of Al Arish. End note). Egyptians themselves have for the most part not attempted to organize local demonstrations; the Egyptian Doctors' syndicate reportedly attempted to organize a demonstration and a march to Gaza, but these plans did not materialize. ABOUL GHEIT TAKES THE OFFENSIVE -------------------------------

7.(SBU) Following media reports that the GOE had halted construction of the steel wall as a result of public criticism, FM Aboul Gheit said on Dec 28 Egypt will not stop its "constructions" on the Gaza border, and the GOE will protect the Egyptian people and Egyptian national security. Referring to the above-ground wall, Aboul Gheit said the GOE had rebuilt the wall after Palestinians had destroyed it during the January 2008 border breach. As for the Gaza marchers, Aboul Gheit said that Egypt belongs to the Egyptian people and outsiders will not be allowed to "roam or enter" without permission. He said that Egypt has been attending to the needs of the Palestinian people for 50 years, "even before those (demonstrators) were born." Aboul Gheit also accused the Gaza freedom marchers of bad intentions against Egypt; "those who tried to conspire against us, and there are more than a thousand, we will leave them in the street." Nevertheless, the GOE compromised with the Gaza marchers on Dec 30 (reftel b), allowing 100 marchers (approx 40 Americans) to travel to Gaza via Rafah (the group departed Cairo Dec 30 at approximately 1200 local). GENERAL CONCERN OVER RAFAH --------------------------

8.(C) MFA Director for Palestinian Affairs Hisham Seif el Din said on Dec 27 that MFA officials are generally concerned with the security situation at Rafah, including the possibility of another breach from the Palestinian side. He argued that commodities in Sinai were dwindling, including gasoline and milk, because these were more profitable when smuggled into Gaza. This was a primary reason the steel wall was built, he contended.

9.(S/NF) Sameh Atta (protect), the advisor to the SYG of the Fawakhria Bedouin Association told poloff December 27 that people in al Arish fear that the construction of the underground wall to prevent smuggling coupled with absence of aid convoys into Gaza could lead to another border breach as occurred in January 2008. Atta recalled that the last breach left people in El Arish without food and had a "destructive effect" on the local people and economy. He believes the solution is for the GOE to organize aid convoys to Gaza and implement a system of "regular, controlled openings of the border" to allow a certain number of Gazans to enter Egypt and buy needed food, water, medicine and other essentials. COMMENT -------

10.(C) The steel wall carries a political liability that will likely continue to be exploited by some critics and the regime's domestic opposition. These critics are also blending the steel wall barrier project with the ongoing installation of the USG-funded border detection system in order to make the charge that the GOE is carrying out a U.S. or Israeli agenda in combatting smuggling. While senior Egyptian officials highlight humanitarian concerns for Gazans, the GOE has been steadfast in maintaining its security prerogatives at the Rafah border following the January 2008 border breach. After an initially quiet response to criticism over the steel wall, the GOE, especially Aboul Gheit, came out swinging, playing the nationalist card against critics. Similarly, the GOE stuck to its guns during Operation Cast Lead, despite facing much more intense local and regional attacks, including 50,000-plus demonstrations in Egypt and heavy pressure at the Arab League emergency ministerial of December 31, 2008. Scobey

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