Israeli Ministers Support Building Island Off Gaza, No Decision Reached Because of Lieberman's Objection

In addition to serving as a seaport, the island would contain infrastructure facilities that would provide water and power to Gaza residents

Palestinian fishermen unload boxes of fish from their boat in the seaport in Gaza City in 2013.
Khalil Hamra / AP

Many members of the security cabinet favor building an artificial island off the Gaza Strip to serve as its port, but due to opposition from Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, no decision was made when the forum discussed the idea Sunday night, according to three senior officials briefed on what happened at the meeting.

The proposal, the brainchild of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, calls for the artificial island to be under international control. In addition to serving as a seaport, the island would contain infrastructure facilities that would provide water and power to Gaza residents.

Speaking on Monday at Haaretz’s Israel Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv, Katz himself described some of what happened at Sunday’s meeting, which focused on Gaza’s electricity crisis. He said he had shown the ministers a two-and-a-half-minute video prepared by the Israel Ports Company, which included a computer simulation of the artificial island, details about the proposed port and infrastructure facilities, explanations of how the island would be linked to Gaza by a bridge, and explanations about how security inspections would be conducted at sea, on the island and at the crossing to Gaza.

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

“The video clip answered all the questions and showed the alternative reality that could be created in Gaza,” he said.

Katz, who is also the intelligence minister, said he also told the security cabinet that building the island would cost around $5 billion, all of which would come from international donations.

“I said it yesterday in one forum, and I’m saying it here publicly – give me the approval, and I’ll get this thing done,” he said. “I’ll take people from the Israel Defense Forces, the legal system, the Shin Bet security service and the Transportation Ministry. And Foreign Ministry personnel will be able to go around the world showing a positive Israeli initiative for the hardest spot in the region.”

The three senior officials, who asked to remain anonymous because the security cabinet meeting was classified, said that Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Housing Minister Yoav Galant all voiced support for Katz’s idea.

But Lieberman said he opposed it on security grounds, as he didn’t believe it would be possible to conduct effective security checks that would prevent arms smuggling to Gaza via the island. He also said Israel’s strategy toward Gaza ought to condition any rehabilitation of the territory on its disarmament.

Due to his opposition, the meeting ended with no decision.

Katz, who was interviewed at the Haaretz peace conference, refused to comment directly on the debate in the security cabinet, but said he doesn’t understand why, six years after he first raised the idea of an artificial island, the government still hasn’t made a decision on it. “Unfortunately, this could be for political reasons, or because of unwillingness to make decisions, and therefore, we are in this situation,” he said, adding that he had told the security cabinet the government needed to make a decision.

“Israel has no policy on Gaza,” he continued. “The parade of Israeli stupidities and the inability to make decisions has gone on for years. We don’t make decisions for all kinds of very prosaic reasons.”

Katz said that both IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other senior defense officials support his artificial island proposal.

“The entire defense establishment supports it,” he said. “When a statesman makes decisions, he can sometimes stretch the security rope. But here, the defense establishment itself supports it and knows how to provide security for it. So why don’t we give two million Palestinians a humanitarian and economic outlet and a transportation base for ties with the world, which could bring about a great change?”

Building such an island would also complete Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, finally end Israel’s responsibility for the situation there and perhaps even prevent new rounds of fighting, Katz argued.

“This is a solution that would enable a significant economic change,” he explained. “When the economy improves, good things generally happen. This would normalize the situation in Gaza.

“If my proposal is accepted, it has a significant change of preventing war,” he added. “It won’t change Hamas’ murderous ideology, and it’s not a deal with Hamas. But we, as Israelis, have an interest in changing the situation in Gaza. There are many civilians there who don’t set policy, and we have the possibility of changing the situation there in a safe way.”