Israel's Gaza Island Mystery: Everyone Seems to Be on Board but Netanyahu

An artificial island would open Gaza to the world without jeopardizing Israeli security, and even enjoys the right's support. So why isn't it happening?

A drawing of the proposed island off the Gaza Strip.
Facebook / Yisrael Katz

Nine years have passed since Israel’s top copywriter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coined the concept of “economic peace.” In a January 2008 address at the annual Herzliya Conference, he proposed that economic development and stability for the Palestinians precede any political solution.

Netanyahu also mentioned a joint tourism project with the Palestinians, saying that such a program and the jobs it would create could do more for peace than international conferences could.

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But no such project has ever been launched, and the Gaza Strip has become a powder keg that explodes every two or three years. The attitude of “there’s no partner for peace” is more firmly rooted than ever, as is the lack of hope for a negotiated settlement. So why was the vision of “economic peace” abandoned?

Every so often, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz raises his idea of creating an artificial island off the Gaza coast; it would contain a port, power and water desalination plants, and an airport that would let Israel lift its blockade of the Strip and prevent a humanitarian crisis there and future wars with Israel.

Katz, who is also the minister of intelligence and atomic energy, conceived the idea after Israel’s 2005 Gaza pullout, or disengagement, which he opposed. He heard about the idea of building islands in the sea from Yitzhak Tshuva, who owns a stake in Israel’s natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean.

“The disengagement didn’t happen. We can tell ourselves that we’re not legally responsible for what happens in Gaza, but it’s not true,” Katz says. “When Egypt closes its border with the Gaza Strip, we're seen as being responsible for [the Strip]. Responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of the 2 million people living there will be placed on us.”

Seagulls over the Gaza coast.
AP / Adel Hana

Katz envisions an island seven or eight square kilometers (3.1 square miles) large and linked to the Gaza coast by a bridge that contains Israeli security checkpoints. This would loosen the noose around Gaza and allow for economic development while letting Israel continue to monitor imports to the territory.

And in the event of a military escalation, Israel could rapidly take control of critical infrastructure. All told, this would be a controlled, conditional lifting of the blockade that could offer the potential for development that Gazans and their Hamas government wouldn’t rush to jeopardize.

Even the far right likes it

It’s not clear why Netanyahu hasn’t put the plan to a cabinet vote. Ministers including Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Zeev Elkin are known to support the idea, as do the army chief and top commanders. The main opponent is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. While Netanyahu hasn’t come out against the plan, he hasn’t done anything to advance it.

There’s no arguing that Gaza is a ticking time bomb in every way: militarily, economically, environmentally, socially and regarding the humanitarian aspect. It’s a time bomb that extracts a price from Gazans and Israelis alike. That was proved all too well in the three military campaigns over the past decade. The Palestinian side paid a much steeper price than Israel in lives, though there were Israeli casualties as well. The economic price was high on both sides.

The state comptroller’s report published this month criticized Israel’s security cabinet for failing to consider diplomatic options that could prevent a military escalation in Gaza. It wasn’t talking about a comprehensive peace agreement, but efforts to boost the Strip’s dismal socioeconomic conditions — the lack of clean water and adequate electricity supplies, high unemployment, sanitation and health problems, and the territory’s total dependence on imports that are transported through Israel.

Israel’s military and security leaders warn constantly about this ticking time bomb. Only two weeks ago Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi warned of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that could lead to a military escalation. The artificial-island idea has been around for a few years as a distant fantasy, and some see it as a prize to Hamas. But it’s the only creative answer to the Strip’s problems today.

A woman washing clothes by hand in devastated Gaza, 2014.
AP

“Operation Protective Edge was the key,” Katz says, referring to the 2014 Gaza war. “It was the birthplace of the realization that Israel doesn’t intend to return to Gaza and bring down the Hamas government. Everyone came to understand that it wouldn’t work with force. And then the defense establishment and the right both adopted the idea of building the island.”

Tens of thousands of jobs

Now is the time for creative steps that will free Israel from the burden of humanitarian responsibility for Gaza and give hope to its 2 million people. The artificial-island project could create jobs for tens of thousands of Gazans and hold the attention of its leaders for years to come.

Katz estimates the cost of the project, which he says would take five years to build, at around $5 billion. He says it wouldn’t be hard to raise the funds from the foreign companies that would build and operate the port, power facilities and desalination plants. Additional funds could come from the international community, and ownership of the island would be international.

Katz views the project as the final stage of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza another unilateral measure. That is, while Hamas and the Gazans in general are to be the main beneficiaries, the project doesn't require their agreement and they wouldn't be the island’s owners.

“It’s clear that there would have to be Israeli security at the port that’s a condition of the Shin Bet security service,” Katz says, noting that there would be “international supervision and policing on the island.”

He rejects the argument that the project would reward Hamas and Palestinian terror in Gaza, saying that the current practice was worse. “What we’re doing today is giving a prize to terror. We give Hamas a key to the biggest prison in the world. Hamas tells its people that Israel is strangling them and blames Israel for their troubles, and this strengthens Hamas,” Katz says.

“But we don’t have the privilege of not making decisions, because the alternative is a humanitarian disaster or a military confrontation or both. We must separate from Gaza from a position of strength ... to give them an opening to the world and an escape valve. I don’t expect Hamas to change.”

So what is he doing to persuade Netanyahu to support the project? He says his publicity efforts are working.

“I told him that with my English I’ve already triggered 300 articles in support of the idea,” Katz says. “You with your English and your marketing abilities will get thousands of articles.”