With the launching of more missiles and balloon-bombs from Gaza into Israel, some media are again fulminating about how Israel has turned Gaza into “the world’s largest open-air prison.” Of course, the reasoning goes, the Gazan people have no choice but to resist in any possible way the horrific conditions with which the Israeli air, land and sea blockade strangles them daily.
In his weekend comments about the Middle East, Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden was just the latest to blame Israel for Gaza’s woes.
However, once again, facts prove these media and observers wrong: The principal source of Gaza’s isolation and desperation is, in fact, Egypt. Egypt has the largest Arab population in the world, ruled Gaza for two decades before the fateful “War of Extermination” against Israel in 1967, and totally controls the southern border of Gaza—containing the terrorist leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the compliant Gazans in the 140-square-mile strip.
Gaza is roughly rectangular, with its western side bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The northern and eastern sides form the boundary with Israel. But its seven-mile-long southern border is with Egypt, with that boundary running through the city of Rafah, the location of a major border crossing from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. That crossing is tightly controlled by Egypt, and is mainly used for humanitarian transfers of individual patients and occasional diplomatic meetings.
A few miles from Rafah, around the southeast corner of Gaza, Israel maintains the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel in uneasy partnership with the Hamas government on the other side. Through this crossing into the “Zionist Entity,” thousands of tons of material are trucked in annually, including construction supplies, food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance. Gazans with work passes or humanitarian needs transit here and through the more northerly Erez crossing.
In addition, Gazan exports go through the Israeli crossings, and remittances are paid to the Gazan exporters and their Hamas enablers. None of this goes on at the Egyptian Rafah crossing.
But there is lots of activity going on at—and under—Rafah, through hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Sinai. Hamas charges $2,500 for an annual license to operate a tunnel into Egypt. Some are as deep as 100 feet, and run from houses in Rafah, Gaza to Rafah, Egypt. Principally, this enormous network of tunnels is used to smuggle arms into Gaza, and to transport terrorists into the Sinai Peninsula to wreak havoc in Egypt.
Worldwide, everyone is keenly aware of the Israeli security fence that protects its border with Gaza, and knows that the Israel Navy patrols the Gaza coast to ensure that armaments are not smuggled in by sea via the Gazan “fishing fleet.”
But the media seem to ignore the fact that Egypt has a far more formidable barrier on its frontier with Gaza. Last week, Egypt announced a major upgrade to the Gaza Wall, to disrupt the underground smuggling operations. The double wall is a 20-foot-tall reinforced concrete monolith. It will be built to a depth of 20 feet to augment the tunnel blockage of the wall constructed in 2008.
In 2014, Egypt realized that a major problem with the smuggling tunnels was their entrance and exit points in densely populated Rafah neighborhoods on both sides of the wall. So Egypt condemned all the houses in Egyptian Rafah within a quarter-mile of the wall.
But the Gazans just extended their tunnels, and, in 2017, the clear-cut buffer zone was increased to a mile in breadth, rendering hundreds of Egyptian families homeless—while rendering most of the Gaza smuggling routes “tunnels to nowhere.”
While the Hamas- and Palestinian Islamic Jihad-led Gaza shoot missiles and launch incendiary devices at Sderot and other southern Israeli cities, Rafah, el-Arish or other northern Egyptian cities are exempt. Nor do Gazans launch barrages of longer-range projectiles into Egyptian population centers. Since the massive celebratory breach of the Egyptian border in 2008—in which hundreds of thousands of Gazans crossed into Egypt—no further efforts have been made to confront Egypt on its relatively airtight border with Gaza.
Instead, everyone looks the other way—condemning Israel, which is actually Gaza’s greatest, though still-hated, benefactor.
In reality, Egypt could open its border with Gaza tomorrow. It could declare a free trade zone to aid the shattered Gazan economy. It would have masses of trucks and civilian transportation crisscrossing the border, as they do at Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, giving Gazans freedom of travel and employment in a place their leadership hasn’t insistently deemed worthy of total destruction. After all, Gazans and Egyptians are Arab brethren, with a shared language, culture and religion.
So why doesn’t Egypt open their arms to their Gazan brethren? Simple—thanks to Hamas and PIJ, Gazans are thoroughly indoctrinated in militancy and terrorism. Islamist elements that have made it into Sinai from Gaza have murdered Egyptian citizens and soldiers on a large scale. What’s more, Egypt has enough trouble containing the Muslim Brotherhood on its own territory—remember the Morsi regime? The last thing Egypt wants is to allow the free movement of Hamas operatives into Egypt; Hamas is, after all, the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So why then does the media ignore Egypt’s critical role in keeping Gaza boxed in and isolated? The answer is simple: When in doubt, blame Israel. Gazans inevitably get shot trying to invade Israel, making for good TV and photos. Plus, it fits neatly into the mainstream media’s preferred narrative—Israel is Goliath. Likewise, the Hamas leadership fully appreciates that attacking the Egyptian border and launching hundreds of missiles into Egypt would cause a reaction that would make Israel’s responses look positively pacifistic in comparison.
Egypt is responsible for the perpetual pressure cooker that is Gaza. While Israel’s blockade of Gaza completes its encirclement, that encirclement would not be possible if the world demanded that Egypt throw open its border with Gaza. The focus on Israel as the culprit in Gaza’s misery is misplaced and hypocritical.
Ken Cohen is co-editor of the Hotline published by Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which offers educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.