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Rights Groups Chastise Egypt Over Gaza

Human Rights Watch has criticized Egypt for its role in cutting off people in the Gaza Strip from the rest of the world. But Egypt's president rejects any criticism of fortifying its border with the Palestinian territory.

Human Rights Watch says Israel has the primary responsibility for the welfare of the people in Gaza, but it argues Egypt's role "cannot be denied."

The director of the group's Middle East and North Africa division, Sarah Leah Whitson, says if the government in Cairo wanted to it could end the siege of Gaza tomorrow.

"It could do so by allowing food and medicine and other critical supplies to reach Gaza without interference, and for Gazans to travel freely to study and work abroad as they wish," she said.

Egypt for the most part keeps its border with Gaza closed, allowing only limited crossings of people and goods. A system of illegal, but easily visible, tunnels runs between Gaza and Egypt, bringing in supplies.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Sunday defended his country's actions, saying he will not allow chaos on Egypt's border, or terrorism and sabotage in its territory.

In a speech marking Police Day, Mr. Mubarak said construction and fortifications along Egypt's border are an Egyptian matter and he will not accept any arguments about it.

Egypt is believed to be building an underground barrier to cut off the tunnels, though it has not officially confirmed it is doing so.

A Palestinian smuggler uses a rope to climb out of a tunnel linking the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah with Egypt (File)
A Palestinian smuggler uses a rope to climb out of a tunnel linking the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah with Egypt (File)

Israel periodically bombs the passages, saying they are used to smuggle weapons to militants associated with Gaza's Hamas government. Israel says it keeps its borders with Gaza tightly controlled to keep the militancy contained.

Regional director Whitson of the New York-based group says discussions of why Gaza remains sealed off miss a major point.

"Whatever Egypt's motives for its complicity with Israel, whether it reflects the extent to which it bows to U.S. and Israeli pressure, or is happy to use this as a lever against Hamas, those who are suffering are Gaza's civilian population. And the closure is an unlawful form of collective punishment for which Egypt shares responsibility," she said.

The comments from Human Rights Watch come as it launches its annual report on the state of freedoms around the world. As for the general state of human rights in the Middle East, Whitson says they are deplorable.

"The sadly recurring theme of our findings for the Arab world and Iran is the brute oppression under which its citizens live their lives, not free to speak freely, not free to associate as they wish, not free to practice their religions freely - not free," she said.

She argues that while Arab governments have failed in many areas, they are the world's most successful in one - keeping themselves in power.