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World

New Israeli-Egyptian border barrier has more than one purpose

The Israeli government begins construction on a new security fence along its border with Egypt this month. Its main purpose is to counter illegal immigration, but there are serious implications for the Mideast conflict.

Palestinian protests near the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt

Despite security, the Egypt- Israel border is often breached

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that Israel is about to begin building a high-tech barrier along its 266-kilometer Sinai border with Egypt. The fence is expected to cost some 1.35 billion shekels ($374 million) and will comprise a host of high-tech elements including radar.

Once the barrier is completed, Israel will be almost entirely fenced in, since the country already has heavily-patrolled fences along its international borders with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and is in the process of building a wall within its own borders to separate Israel from the Palestinian Territories.

But this new fence is ostensibly different to the others. The Israel-Egypt border has become a major transit route for economic migrants, asylum-seekers and drug smugglers, and some estimates suggest that over 1,000 people are crossing the border into Israel every month.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks at the Israeli-Egyptian border

Netanyahu expects construction to begin within weeks

"The problem of illegal infiltrators along the south-western border is a threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement. "I want to see tangible results regarding the start of work on the ground barrier within the coming weeks."

Solving two problems

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, says that a large majority of Israelis support the new construction. "Most Israelis are very supportive of it, because we have a problem here that no-one knows how to deal with," he told Deutsche Welle. "We have estimations that 15,000 people cross the border every year, and some people think that that number will double in the following years if the fence is not constructed."

Baskin insists that this is a very different kind of fence to the huge concrete and steel barrier being erected in the West Bank. "It's a totally different situation," he said. "The wall being built between the Israelis and the Palestinians is aimed at preventing suicide bombers getting into Israel, though some people view it as a land-grab."

But while Baskin describes the Sinai boundary as "a very, very quiet border in terms of security issues," others point out that it is often used by the military wing of Hamas to smuggle weapons into Israel.

Margret Johannsen, reasearcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, says, "Hamas really has something to fear from the barrier." This is obviously another reason for the massive investment.

Mutual enemy

For its part, Egypt has said that Israel's construction is its own business. "This issue does not concern us at all," Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in January, when plans for the new construction were first announced. "Israel is building something on its own soil and there is no link between that security fence and our construction along the border with Gaza."

But this affected apathy belies what many believe is the active interest that Egypt also has in controlling the border. "Hamas is a mutual enemy of Israel and Egypt," Johannsen told Deutsche Welle. "Hamas is founded in the Muslim Brotherhood, which questions the legitimacy of the Egyptian regime."

A Palestinian smuggler prays inside a tunnel running between Egypt and the Gaza Strip

There is a vast network of tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border

"The problem is the Egyptian government practices a certain see-saw policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood," she added. "The Brotherhood is officially illegal, and cannot stand in elections, but it enjoys popular support among the Egyptian people, who see Hamas as a David fighting Goliath."

Blurred issues

The Egyptian government is therefore forced to balance its people's support for Hamas with western and Israeli pressure to control the border. While for Israelis the issues of illegal immigration and security may be totally separate, at the Sinai border they become difficult to distinguish, especially for border guards.

Palestinians dug thousands of tunnels to smuggle goods, fuel and weapons from Egypt to the Gaza Strip after Israel imposed a tight blockade on the territory more than two years ago. But many African migrants also pay the smugglers for passage into Israel to escape poverty and humanitarian crises and look for work.

The tunnel network continues to flourish, despite the underground steel wall that Egypt has built along its border with Gaza. Dozens of these tunnels are routinely discovered and destroyed by both Egyptian and Israeli authorities, but others are cut all the time.

On top of this, Egyptian border guards shoot at the African migrants, and many have been killed. The latest incident occurred last Saturday, when Egyptian police shot dead one Sudanese and injured two others attempting to cross the border. Seven more escaped into Israel after their smugglers traded gunfire with the border guards.

But Johannsen says that though Israel's concern about immigration may be real, the government has other priorities. "It's true that the African immigrants are another problem, and this is one of the many ways they try to get north, but I don't think that is main problem," she says. "I think the main problem is the smuggling, and when this border is finally made smuggle proof, that'll squeeze Hamas more and more. That is really the aim."

But given the huge cost of the new barrier and the technical and engineering challenge it presents, it could still take years to complete.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nick Amies

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