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Israel, Gaza tensions: Why Egypt helps maintain the blockade

Simmering tensions – due in part to a long-standing blockade of the territory – are escalating toward another Israel Gaza standoff. Often overlooked is Egypt's role in the blockade.

By Correspondent / April 2, 2010

Palestinian women wait to cross to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, March 1.

Eyad Baba/AP



Israel today threatened a second Gaza war if Palestinian militants do not cease the rocket attacks that have increased as discontent simmers over a long-standing blockade. But while Gazans, supported by international human rights activists, have lambasted Israel for the blockade, often overlooked is the accessory role of neighboring Egypt.

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Egypt has also kept its border with Gaza largely closed, despite the intense public anger it arouses here and throughout the Muslim world.

The move is motivated by regional rivalries and international alliances, say analysts. Egypt doesn’t want to take the pressure off Israel, which it holds responsible for running Gaza. At the same time, Egypt has an interest in weakening militant Islamist group Hamas, which rules the territory. And many suspect that US pressure plays into Egypt's participation in the blockade, though Egypt denies this.

Emad Gad, an analyst at the government-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, boils the issue down to Egypt’s opposition to Hamas.

“Hamas is part of another coalition in the region – the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah coalition,” he says. “Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Hamas is trying to minimize the Egyptian role in the Palestinian cause.”

Under these circumstances, he says, Egypt has little reason to end the blockade.

When and why the blockade started

Israel began restricting the flow of goods into Gaza when Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. After Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, Israel tightened the blockade, allowing only a trickle of basic goods into the coastal enclave through the five entry points it controls.

Egypt followed suit, keeping the Rafah crossing mostly closed. It opens the border only to allow special shipments of medical supplies into Gaza and to allow some Palestinians to leave, most for medical treatment.

Egypt last year allowed more than 7,000 tons of medical equipment into Gaza and about 75,000 Palestinians to leave the territory, says Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, who disputes labeling the border as “closed.”

But under the blockade, Gaza has experienced shortages of basic goods, and building supplies needed for reconstruction after Israel’s offensive there last year are almost impossible to come by. Most of the goods used in Gaza are now smuggled in through tunnels on the Egyptian border.

In December, Egypt began building a new subterranean wall along the border, designed to extend about 60 feet below the surface and block the smuggling tunnels that bring weapons but also basic trade goods into Gaza that for the past four years have been a crucial safety valve to reduce pressure on commodity prices in Gaza.

Playing the blame game