Egyptian officials yesterday confirmed that Cairo is covertly constructing an underground steel barrier along the border with Gaza to cut smuggling into the Strip.
They contradicted a report in the Cairo daily Al-Shorouk quoting an unidentified source who said, "Egypt is dealing with smuggling seriously and is capable of stopping it without [a] wall."
When completed in 18 months' time, the impenetrable and indestructible wall will be 10-11km in length and will extend 18-30m below the surface along the 13km-long border.
Four kilometres have, reportedly, been completed north of the town of Rafah, which is bisected by the border that also divides Palestinian families - many of whom are involved in the illegal cross-border trade.
Over the past year the number of tunnels has doubled from 750 to 1,500. They carry essential goods, household appliances, fuel, medicines, fertiliser, seeds, clothing, motorbikes, and even the occasional car.
If the flow of goods is impaired or interdicted, the 1.5 million Gazans would be reduced to reliance on the ration package con- taining flour, pulses and tea distributed by UN agencies.
Only basic supplies are permitted to enter the Strip through goods crossings controlled by Israel, which tightened its blockade of Gaza following the seizure of power there by Hamas in June 2007.
Israel routinely bombs tunnels it claims are used for explosives and weapons traffic, while Cairo tries to tackle smuggling by arresting dealers, closing down warehouses on the Egyptian side of the frontier and blowing up tunnels.
Last March, the US provided Egypt with $32 million (€21.75 million) to install electronic surveillance devices and other equipment to prevent smuggling.
Since these efforts have failed to halt or seriously limit commerce, Cairo is said to have come under pressure from the US and Israel to agree to the sinking of an underground barrier.
US army engineers have designed the wall, modelled on structures used to reinforce levees in hurricane-prone New Orleans. US firms have manufactured its sections, which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Farmers and herdsmen have remarked on the clearing of land near the border, and local municipal official Suleiman Bair said farmers would be compensated for the loss of fruit and olive trees. Shoot-outs have erupted between Egyptian police and Bedouin tribesmen involved in smuggling and tunnel protection.
Confirmation of the construction of the underground wall coincided with an appeal issued by dozens of UN agencies, inter- national organisations and national non-governmental bodies for $664.4 million to finance humanitarian programmes in Gaza, East Jerusalem and areas of the West Bank where the Palestinian economy has been devastated by Israel's settlements, separation wall, checkpoints and restrictions on movement.
UN humanitarian co-ordinator Maxwell Gaylard asserted: "The continued erosion of livelihoods and the denial of basic human rights together are compelling Palestinians to become more and more dependent on international aid."
A wall between Egypt and Gaza is likely to deepen the distress and dependence of Palestinians trapped in the Strip.