Smuggling Tunnel in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Photo by Marius Arnesen.

On January 20, 2010, the UN Aid and Association for International Development Agencies called for the immediate opening of Gaza’s borders in light of the escalating health and environmental crisis that threatens the area. In direct contravention to this request, Gaza’s borders will soon be further blocked. Early this year, Israel announced plans to build a wall on its southern border, and Palestinians protested the construction of another wall that Egypt has just begun to build on its Rafah border. With the completion of these two walls, Egypt and Israel will have effectively caged off the Gaza strip, preventing Palestinians in Gaza from leaving and keeping out the flow of supplies that are smuggled through the border.

It has been a year since Egypt was harshly criticized on humanitarian grounds for closing its border to Palestinians desperate to escape Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009; the construction of this wall is drawing the same kind of critiques. Egyptian officials have explained that the wall is necessary to defend Egypt’s national security, but it is widely understood that it is building the wall to halt the smuggling that occurs underneath its borders every day. Egypt’s steel wall is to run one hundred feet deep, blocking the estimated four hundred tunnels that run underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Israel too, for the purposes of national security and stability, is building a wall on its southern border. In addition to protecting national security, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the wall is intended protect the “Jewish character of the state.” Thousands of African migrants cross the border from Egypt into Israel to seek safety every year. Many of theses migrants are asylum seekers, hailing from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. The journey to Israel is often very perilous; seventeen African migrants have been ordered shot at the border by Egyptian security since May 2009.

These walls suggest the possibility of serious humanitarian problems. Once completed, the two walls will indirectly link up near Rafah, Egypt; it is speculated that eventually the whole Gaza strip will be blocked by one single wall. Caging in the Gaza strip will likely foster an explosive atmosphere among residents. There have already been casualties associated with this project, as violent protests have been erupting along the site of the walls.

Since the Israeli blockade on Gaza began in 2007, Gazans have come to rely on the one million dollars worth of goods that are smuggled through the tunnels every day. The United Nations has repeatedly called on Israel to lift its blockade, which it initially applied for security reasons. The blockade limits basic necessities, like food, medical, construction, and fuel supplies, from entering Gaza. With no other option, these same goods must be smuggled through the tunnels. The tunnels have helped deter a humanitarian crisis for those isolated on the 360 square kilometer strip. By blocking the tunnels, Egypt will be denying Palestinians the goods they desperately need.

Further, the aim of these protective measures may very well fail to prevent and rather exacerbate the existing problems. Migrants are likely to continue trying to enter Israel through more perilous routes, and smugglers may try to construct deeper tunnels. Israel has international obligations under Article 55 and 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that residents in Gaza have access to food and medical supplies. With the construction of these walls, not only are Israel and Egypt evading their international obligations, but the walls may lead to more problems by forcing people to seek more desperate schemes to obtain relief.