Gaza Seaport Plans Pit Senior Israeli Military Officers Against Netanyahu, Ya'alon

IDF brass say Gaza's economic woes are leading to another war, while PM and defense minister stick to stringent security demands.

A Palestinian man smokes while walking on the main beach road after rainstorm near the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, January 26, 2016.
AP

Political and military officials over the past few weeks have once again begun discussing an Israeli position on the possibility of a seaport in Gaza. Renewed discussion of the issue, which was raised for a short time after the war against Hamas in the summer of 2014, is connected to the deteriorating economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, to the desire to seek long-term solutions that would help improve the situation and reduce the danger of a new outbreak of conflict with Hamas.

At least five proposals are on the table, including building a port in Egyptian territory in Sinai in the Al Arish area, construction of an artificial port opposite the Gaza shoreline, building it on the Gaza coast itself, and earmarking quays in Cyprus or Ashdod for Gaza-bound shipments.

Senior Israel Defense Forces officers are in favor in principle of a port for the Gaza Strip, especially if it comes with a Hamas pledge for a long-term cease-fire. Some ministers also support the idea. However, chances do not seem especially strong, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are against it.

Hamas demanded a port before the last war in Gaza and more forcefully during the fighting. But Israel rejected it and Egypt also opposed it. No progress has been made on the matter since then, despite interest by foreign governments, including Qatar and some European countries.

More than a year ago, a student at the National Security College at the time, Navy Brig. Gen. Yossi Ashkenazi, prepared an academic paper examining various options for a Gazan port, but did not include recommendations. Ya’alon discussed it with senior IDF officers last summer. Although the army supports the idea without knowing what the preferred option is, Ya’alon is dead set against any solution in which Israel does not have security control over merchandise coming into Gaza.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who raised the issue back in 2011, is now the minister in charge of intelligence affairs and a member of the inner security cabinet. Katz proposes building an artificial island eight square kilometers in size that will be connected to the Gaza Strip by a 4.5-kilometer-long bridge. The port would be built on the island, and Katz proposes studying the idea of building an airport on it later as well. Israel would supervise security checks at the port.

An illustration of an artificial island off the Gaza coast – one of the plans being explored by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
Yisrael Katz Facebook page

Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday that the deteriorating economic situation in the Strip could spark new violence against Israel. MKs who were at the meeting said that according to Halevi, progress in rebuilding Gaza after the war has been too slow and that reconstruction is the most important factor in preventing another war.

Tunnels are back

About a month ago it emerged that Hamas had rebuilt its attack tunnels, which had been damaged during the last war, and that intelligence officials believed some tunnels had already been dug into Israeli territory. Over the past few months international organizations have reported a serious decline in quality of life in the Gaza Strip. Electrical supplies are intermittent in large parts of its cities and drinking water is poor. The Egyptians have been making a concentrated effort over the past year to destroy smuggling tunnels from the Gaza Strip to Sinai via Rafah. They have begun flooding the tunnels with sea water, which could seep into the water table and further compromise drinking water quality, especially in the southern Gaza Strip.

Proponents of the port’s construction – on the Gaza coast or an artificial island – point out several advantages. It will improve the economy in Gaza by supplying work for thousands of people. The establishment of a port over several years will be an incentive to the Gaza regime to maintain a cease-fire with Israel so it can move ahead on the project. Israel will also be showing initiative after years of diplomatic stalemate. Supporters believe a solution can be found to scrutinize merchandize arriving in Gaza and prevent the smuggling of advanced weaponry.

Opponents of the idea point first and foremost to the security risk. Any outsourcing of security checks could cost Israel dearly, they say. When efforts were made in the past to have security checks performed by a third party, they failed miserably. One prime example was seen after disengagement in 2005, when European observers were stationed at the crossing. Their supervision was superficial and they left after Hamas took over and expelled Fatah security officials in 2007.

Ya’alon is willing to examine two alternatives, which the Palestinians are unlikely to accept: opening a special quay for Gazan shipments in Ashdod, under Israeli supervision, or establishing a port in Al Arish where Egyptian security officials would check merchandize first, after which it would be taken overland to the Nitzana crossing and from there through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip after examination by Israel.

There are other problems. It is unclear whether Hamas will agree at all to a port not fully under its control in Gaza. And the Palestinian Authority has so far rejected any proposal to deploy its people at the Kerem Shalom, Erez or Rafah crossings as part of an arrangement to lift the closure of the Strip. It will probably not agree to be part of an agreement over a port. Ramallah will also not view favorably any plan that improves the image of Hamas as bringing achievements to the Gazans, without significant parallel moves in the West Bank.