Can Palestinian Ports Be Developed in Gaza to Relieve the Humanitarian Crisis?
- In mid-January 2018, Israel destroyed a Hamas attack tunnel that passed under the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israeli territory and from there into Egypt.1 The event sparked a debate in Israel about the proper policy on the border crossings to and from Palestinian territories.
- Now that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation initiative has failed, the situation remains as it has been: sporadic, unregulated opening and closing of the crossing by Egypt, with Hamas personnel on the Palestinian side even though the crossing was officially handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
- Amid the public Palestinian and international discussion of Gazan Palestinians’ desire to emigrate, a system of exit and entry in both directions needs to be devised. Considering that Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terror organization, the system must include the necessary security arrangements.
- Israeli security sources stressed that improving the situation in Gaza, including relieving the sense of suffocation, is an Israeli security interest because it could prevent an internal explosion that would probably affect Israel. Planning, however, is concentrated on the movement of goods, and not the movement of people, the sources admitted.
- Various plans have been presented for establishing Gazan port facilities. They are detailed in this report:
- Use an existing Israeli port and transport cargo to Gaza through Israel.
- Build a new port in Gaza.
- Build an artificial island opposite Gaza with bridges to Gaza.
- Build a port on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza.
In mid-January 2018, Israel destroyed a Hamas attack tunnel that passed under the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israeli territory and from there into Egypt.2 The event sparked a debate in Israel about the proper policy on the border crossings to and from Palestinian territories. The issue of the crossings had also been the focus of the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas that was renewed in November 2017, particularly with regard to the Rafiah (Rafah) crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. An effort was made to work out a form of regulation for this crossing. Egypt controls it, and most of the time it is closed. The aim of the reconciliation process was to create a situation in which the crossing could operate regularly.
In an interview to France TV 24, Egyptian President Sisi said:
The purpose of the Palestinian reconciliation is to prevent extremism from growing among the second and third generations. The Palestinian Authority is capable of running the Gaza Strip, opening the crossings, and dealing with the situation in Gaza. The Rafah crossing is one of the crossings, there are international agreements [concerning it], and bringing the PA there again is part of restoring the traffic there and part of ending the terror in Sinai.3
According to PA sources, Egypt’s position4 on the issue of the Rafiah crossing was closer to that of Hamas than to Ramallah’s. Hamas wanted to “participate” in administering the crossing, whereas Ramallah wanted “exclusivity.” Egypt, the sources said, also wanted to preserve a role for Hamas, so that Hamas would be able to help Egypt with its war on ISIS terror in Sinai.
Now that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation initiative has failed, the situation remains as it has been: sporadic, unregulated opening and closing of the crossing by Egypt, with Hamas personnel on the Palestinian side even though the crossing was officially handed over to the PA.
The Rafiah crossing is the only one through which people pass to an Arab country and from there to the world at large. The Erez crossing, on the northern side of Gaza, enables people to pass into Israel but not to an Arab country and not to the world. The number of those who cross through Erez into Israel and from there to the world is very small. The website of the civil-society NGO, Gisha, which helps people pass into and out of Gaza, reports that complicated bureaucracy is involved.5
The question of the Rafiah crossing is linked to the issue of the crossings in general and to the issue of a port for Gaza, which would actually be a “maritime crossing.” As we will see, some of the alternatives for a port for Gaza are integrally related to the land crossings.
This issue involves two aspects: the passage of goods and the passage of people. Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, which ousted the PA and left Hamas as the sole ruler, was a turn for the worse for the Palestinians, fostering the crisis that the attempted reconciliation was supposed to overcome.
Two problems resulted from the Hamas takeover. One concerns security; the other concerns who is the legitimate party to operate the crossings and is supposed to operate the seaport when the time comes: Hamas, the ruler on the ground, or the PA, which the world recognizes as the legitimate government in Gaza as well?
Hamas’ conquest of Gaza is the point of departure for considering the issue of the port. The divide between Gaza and the West Bank and the sanctions that have been imposed on Hamas have given rise to a widespread anti-Israeli narrative about a “blockade of Gaza,” as if Israel is strangling Gaza. It was this narrative that inspired the various “flotillas,” one of which caused a major crisis in relations between Israel and Turkey.6
While Israel defines Hamas as a terror organization, Egypt has avoided defining Hamas as such. Although Egypt conducts ad hoc pragmatic relations with Hamas, it still views the PA in Ramallah as the Palestinians’ legitimate representative, and it wanted only the PA to be involved in officially administering the crossings. The arrangements with Hamas were ad-hoc only.
Those arrangements made possible only sporadic openings of the Rafiah crossing, very much unlike the official regulation that only Ramallah is supposed to conduct.
Although the reconciliation talks eventually collapsed for many reasons,
Palestinian sources cite several main causes: the lack of funding to pay expenses of the implementation such as salaries; the failure of a sulh (settling of differences) that occurred between the families of those killed in the battles between Fatah and Hamas; and the PA security forces’ fear for their safety were they to deploy in Gaza, including at the border crossings.7
Saudi Arabia refused to pay the expenses of the reconciliation, and Egypt had no answer for the economic issue. Regarding the West Bank security personnel’s fear of working in Gaza, however, the Egyptians proposed that the PA recruit its security personnel from among the residents of Gaza.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah official who took part in the talks, reportedly proposed solving this problem by transferring the operations from Rafiah to Nitzana on the Egyptian-Israeli border.8He denied the report, but this should be understood in light of the West Bank security operatives’ fears about being deployed in Gaza.
The other Gaza crossings, Kerem Shalom and Erez, face Israel. Like Egypt, Israel has adjusted to a reality in which Hamas is the party on the other side of the border, taking an ad hoc approach as Egypt does with Rafiah. Israel, too, has accepted – de facto, though not de jure – Hamas’ presence across the border.
A difference between Israel and Egypt is that whereas the latter does not allow a regularized arrangement with Hamas, in Israel’s crossings there is great regularity and a very large transit of goods.9
Another difference is that whereas the Rafiah crossing is intended only for the passage of people, Israel’s crossings are for goods only (Kerem Shalom) as well as a very small amount of people, mainly foreigners, and by a minuscule number of Gazans.
In the current situation, there is no regulation of the passage of people to or from Gaza.
Sources in the Israeli defense establishment said there had been an attempt to regulate the passage of Gazans to Jordan through Israel. Jordan, however, refused to admit them,10 and the issue has fallen off the agenda. Alternative arrangements were not considered.
Exceptions in this context are arranged by the abovementioned Gisha organization, which was able, through great effort, to arrange for young Gazans to leave for studies abroad. The Al Jazeera channel11 has given great attention to the Palestinians’ desire to emigrate.12
Amid the public Palestinian and international discussion of Gazan Palestinians’ desire to emigrate, a system of exit and entry in both directions needs to be devised. Considering that Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terror organization, the system must include the necessary security arrangements.
Providing a Port for Exit by Sea
The issue of the crossings is closely linked to the issue of the port. So long as there is no port within Gaza itself, the alternative solution is a port outside of Gaza, in Israel, or in Sinai, and such a solution would have to involve the land crossings.
Due to the lack of a solution regarding a port for the Palestinians, Israel is stigmatized for imposing a “closure” on Gaza. The desire to remove this stigma has led security and political officials to seek a suitable solution for a Gaza port. For example, the idea of building an island off the coast of Gaza, which would serve as both a seaport and an airport, was the brainchild of the late Meir Dagan, who was then the head of the Mossad. Current Transportation Minister and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz is also interested in the idea and is now its main advocate.13
During Radio Palestine’s day of broadcasts commemorating the visit to Gaza of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s Palestinian Authority government, supposedly with the aim of taking the reins of government, the problem of entry and exit from Gaza kept popping up. When the station’s broadcasters14 interviewed young Gazans about what they expected from the reconciliation, many said, “to enable us to leave.” While in the past, young Gazans had called Gaza “the world’s biggest prison,” in these interviews they called it “hell.”
Some of the Palestinian ministers in the entourage told Radio Palestine that one of the government’s main goals would be to create such conditions that young Gazans would no longer want to emigrate.
Israeli security sources said that in the past when there were no fences between Israel and Jordan, young Gazans would make their way overland to Jordan. The result was a community of young Gazan illegal residents numbering tens of thousands in Jordan. Because of severe difficulties in coping with the phenomenon,15 Jordan prevented Israel from providing safe passage for further migration into its territory.
Hamas’ website, however, claimed that the reason Jordan prevented the arrangement was that Israel conditioned it on the Gazans not being able to return.16
Severe Problems Plague Gaza
Sources in Gaza17 privately told us that two main problems are afflicting the Gazans and creating the sense of suffocation there: high unemployment and a shortage of electricity. There are, of course, other severe problems as well, like the untreated sewage and the poor quality of the drinking water,18 but unemployment and electricity are at the top of the list. According to the PA’s official news agency, unemployment among young Gazans stands at 41 percent.19 The major advantage of a port is that it could provide Gazans with jobs. Israel agreed to supply Gaza with electricity in order to operate the Gaza sewage facility and desalination plant, in accordance with the agreements signed by Israel’s Water Authority with Gaza Electricity Distribution Company.20
Electricity paid by the Palestinian Authority is now provided by Israel for only four hours a day, and our sources in Gaza said that this effectively paralyzes the Strip. “For example, in a typical office, not one of the workers is occupied with his work but rather with how his wife at home is managing with the electricity allotment, and whether he will have a hot meal or be able to wash when he gets home. In the buildings with high floors, there is a problem of elevators. Yes, there are also generators, but there is a problem with turning them on every time someone has to take the elevator. What about emergency situations, when you have to send someone to the hospital, and there is no elevator?”
Electricity regulation is connected to the Rafiah crossing21 because the electricity cables from Egypt run through it.22 The electric lines from Egypt are also irregular, with many stoppages, and the supply from Egypt is not dependable.
Israeli security sources stressed that improving the situation in Gaza, including relieving the sense of suffocation, is an Israeli security interest because it could prevent an internal explosion that would probably affect Israel. Planning, however, is concentrated on the movement of goods, and not the movement of people, the sources admitted.
Encouragement to Leave for Employment
Security sources say that tens of thousands of young Gazans have visas for places abroad but no way to leave Gaza.23 These young people have been accepted at universities abroad or for work. Their level of frustration is especially high.
The human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, deals in its latest report with the “closure” of Gaza24 and, as is its practice, places most of the blame on Israel. But HRW also notes the role of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. For our purposes, it places special emphasis on the passage of people to and from the Gaza Strip and places Israel in charge of solving the problem.
The Director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Ram Ben-Barak, also stressed the issue of the passage of people. “No one works in the Gaza Strip. It’s a crazy situation. No work. Let people and goods go out under control and supervision. You need to take risks in this regard. I recommended a dock in Cyprus or an island to provide employment and hope.”25
The coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), Maj. Gen. Yoav “Poli” Mordechai, together with advisors Michael Milstein and Yotam Amitai, describes the young generation’s frustration as explosive, only getting worse, and as threatening both Hamas and Israel. It threatens Hamas because the group is no longer seen as meeting the Gazans’ needs; it threatens Israel because, due to Hamas’ incitement, it is seen as the source of the distress. Mordechai does not suggest that freedom to leave and enter Gaza is a way to help this generation, but, instead, an economic “Marshall Plan” is necessary to provide a horizon of hope within Gaza.26
The PA, for its part, is aware of the young people’s distress, and not surprisingly is encouraging them to emigrate. One of the first acts of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah upon taking office was to urge the Gulf States to provide jobs to Palestinian youth. However, only Qatar agreed, offering 20,000 jobs27 in coordination with the PA.28
The opening of Qatar to Palestinian labor migration sparked a controversy in the PA. Whereas the young Gazans were not concerned about leaving, only about finding work, young West Bankers saw a sinister plot to empty the refugee camps and dampen the passion for “resistance.”29
There are also private initiatives to help young Palestinians find work in the Gulf under the slogan “Fulfilling a Dream.”
The PA’s Ministry of Labor30 set up a special website to register young people who want to work in Qatar.31
Although Hamas indeed does not openly encourage emigration, it turns out that it, too, wants to relieve the internal pressures by giving young people the possibility of leaving. For example, when Hamas cited the obstacles to reconciliation it claimed Ramallah was posing, it included positions that, it claimed, would prevent young people from leaving.32At the same time, t
there have been cases where Hamas prevented young people from leaving via the Rafiah crossing and even used clubs to disperse them because they had received their visas through the PA’s delegation in Cairo.33
All the sources we spoke with emphasized that the current situation, in which Gaza does not have a port or a proper point of egress, cannot continue and must be addressed before Gaza explodes.34
Options for a Palestinian Port
Prof. Asaf Ashar, an internationally known expert in port planning from the University of New Orleans, has written a comprehensive paper called “Gaza Port’s Alternatives.”35 (See the Appendix.) Below is a summary of Prof. Ashar’s research.
Alternative Plans for a Gaza Port
The following are five port plans involving land transport of international cargoes to the Gaza Strip:
- Ashdod/Kerem Shalom (the existing system) – Ashdod port; processing of the cargoes to Gaza in the Kerem Shalom terminal at the Gaza border.
- Gaza (Hamas plan) – Building a port south of Gaza City.
- Gaza Island (Katz plan)36 – Building a port on an artificial island opposite Gaza; transporting the cargoes to Gaza by bridges, with checkpoints under international supervision.
- El-Arish/Kerem Shalom (Ashar plan I) – Building an autonomous Palestinian port as part of the development plan for an Egyptian port in El-Arish; transporting the cargoes to Gaza through Kerem Shalom.
- South Gaza/Kerem Shalom (Ashar plan II) – Building an autonomous Palestinian port on the Egyptian side of the southern border of Gaza; transporting the cargoes to Gaza through Kerem Shalom.
Two additional alternatives, a Palestinian terminal in Ashdod and trans-shipment in Cyprus, were rejected in advance as unacceptable.
The following section will survey the five plans and assess them according to five criteria:
- Israeli security,
- the Palestinians’ national aspirations,
- economic desirability,
- economic development, and
- political likelihood.
Ashdod Port/Kerem Shalom
Today, Palestinian cargo is dealt with exclusively at the Ashdod port. After an initial inspection at the port, the cargo is transported in trucks to the cargo terminal at Kerem Shalom for a thorough inspection. The process of the inspection and transfer of the goods at Kerem Shalom is based on delivery areas: goods that have been brought to the spot by Israeli trucks are unloaded by an Israeli crew and spread out for inspection on a surface surrounded by a protective wall; after the check by the Israeli inspectors, the goods are loaded by a Palestinian crew onto Palestinian trucks for final delivery. The PA is in charge of the Palestinian activity on the Israeli side, and it also collects customs, an important source of revenue. Hamas is in charge of the activity on the Gazan side. The terminal operates 24/7 and until recently transferred as many a thousand trucks a day — proof of the close cooperation between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas.
With the economic conditions in Gaza worsening, however, Gazans’ buying power has dropped and the truck traffic has dropped by half.
Israeli security: A satisfactory solution.
Palestinian national aspirations: An unsatisfactory solution.
Economic desirability: There is no need for investments. The Palestinian cargo constitutes only a small part of the cargo traffic in Ashdod, the volume of which will soon be doubled. But the current method is expensive for the Palestinians because of the port expenses in Ashdod and the 90 kilometers of transportation in Israeli trucks.
Economic development: Limited; the Palestinians see the current system, which is based in Ashdod, as temporary and will not favor the development of Kerem Shalom (see below).
Political likelihood: Israel indeed benefits from the economic activity related to the Palestinian cargo, but Israel also prefers, in line with the separation policy, that the Palestinians should have their own port. The PA, and Hamas in particular, completely reject the use of Ashdod for the long term. Egypt’s position is not clear.
The Gaza City Port (Hamas Plan)
The planned Gaza port is in the vicinity of Nuseirat, about five kilometers south of the boundary of Gaza City, in a densely populated area where the Gaza Strip is about six kilometers wide. The open area beside the shore is small and could accommodate only a small port that could transfer only a portion of the Palestinian cargo. The refugee camps surrounding the port make it difficult to build an access road, a parking lot for trucks, and so on. Nor is there room for a train terminal or for areas for storage and industry, and there is a problem of environmental risk (involving fuel containers and chemicals).
Israeli security: An unsatisfactory solution, even if Hamas agrees to international supervision and allows Israel access for security cameras.
Palestinian national aspirations: A satisfactory solution; in line with Israeli promises in all the agreements since the first Oslo agreement in 1993.
Economic desirability: Because of the high cost of coastal infrastructure (breakwaters, canals, piers, etc.), building the port, even if it is a small port that can handle only part of the Palestinian cargo traffic, would necessitate large investments.
Economic development: Limited because of the lack of space beside the port.
Political likelihood: Hamas is the main supporter of this plan, which would provide employment to its backers and, particularly, customs revenues that currently go to the PA. The PA opposes the plan for fear of establishing the “state of Hamas” in Gaza. Israel strongly opposes it. Egypt would probably take the same stance as Israel and the PA.
The Gaza Island Port (Katz Plan)
In light of the impasse on the issue of a Gaza port, Minister Yisrael Katz has proposed building a Palestinian port on an artificial island at a distance of 4.5 kilometers from the shore, beside but outside of the territorial waters of Gaza. This eight-square-kilometer island would include both a marina and an airport. The main reason to invest $5 billion in the island is the security that would be obtained through the use of checkpoints under international supervision, which would be located on bridges connecting the island to the land.
The Katz plan “forgot” an important fact: the width of the territorial waters was extended many years ago from three maritime miles (5.5 km) to 12 maritime miles (22 km). Accordingly, the island would be within the territorial waters of Gaza, hence presumably under Hamas rule. (Building an island at a distance of 22 km from the shore is impossible because of the depth of the water, which can reach 200 meters or more.) If, however, the main advantage of the island is the security that is provided by bridges, why build it 4.5 kilometers and not, for instance, 0.5 kilometer from the shore and save on investments? Moreover, the current inspection system, which is based on the delivery areas and the spreading out of the cargo, cannot be implemented on the bridges. In sum, apart from the high cost (three or more times greater), a Gaza island port is no different from a Gaza City port.
El-Arish/Kerem Shalom Port (Ashar I)
The goal of this plan is to remedy the shortcomings of the Katz plan regarding security and lack of areas for a port and for development by:
- Continuing the existing security system that is based on transferring all the Palestinian cargo through Kerem Shalom.
- Building an autonomous seaport under PA control on Egyptian land based on a long-term rental contract.
- Transferring some of the seaport’s activity to Kerem Shalom and turning it into a dry port.
Under the plan, the autonomous port of Palestine would be part of the widened port of El-Arish, and the Palestinian investment would cover a considerable portion of the expenses of building the extended Egyptian-Palestinian port. The port would be operated by the PA; all the Palestinian cargo would be transported by Palestinian trucks (and in the future by train) to Kerem Shalom.
The idea of building an autonomous Palestinian port on Egyptian land is not an innovation. Many countries in the world provide neighboring countries with coastal lands for the building of autonomous ports through long-term leasing (99 years + extension): cases include Tanzania/Zambia, Peru/Bolivia, and Uruguay/Paraguay. Close to home, Saudi Arabia gave Jordan the coastal strip on which the new Aqaba port was built, and Egypt recently transferred control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Widening Kerem Shalom and turning it into a dry port is at the heart of the Ashar plan. The advantage of Kerem Shalom, apart from open areas, is its unique strategic location: at the meeting point of the Israeli, Gazan, and Egyptian borders. Hence, the proposed development includes, in addition to the dry port, industrial parks, and Free Trade Zones. The route of Israel Railways would be extended to Kerem Shalom, enabling the building of a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank that would allow the transport of international, intra-Palestinian, and, in the future, Egyptian cargoes as well. The terminal at Kerem Shalom would become a regional industrial-logistical center served by roads, trains, and ships – through the Palestinian seaport at El-Arish (or south Gaza).
Israeli security: A satisfactory solution; all the Palestinian traffic would pass through Kerem Shalom.
Palestinian national aspirations: A partial solution; the Palestinian port would be autonomous but on Egyptian land.
Economic desirability: Building the Palestinian port as part of the El-Arish port would save on investment in maritime infrastructure. The operation of the port by the PA, the use of Palestinian trucks, and the shorter distance than Ashdod – 45 kilometers compared to 90 kilometers – would save on operational costs.
Economic development: Considerable, particularly regarding Gaza and the West Bank but also regarding northern Sinai in Egypt.
Political likelihood: The plan depends on Egypt’s consent. Egypt would probably support the plan insofar as the development of El-Arish would not materialize without the Palestinian cargoes. However, Egypt would likely oppose it in an attempt to limit its involvement with the Palestinians, which, in the plan, includes an autonomous terminal and Palestinian truck traffic within Egypt. Presumably, the PA, operator of the port, would support the plan while Hamas would oppose it, seeing it as an attempt to prevent the development of the Gaza port. Israel has no political reason to oppose the plan.
South Gaza/Kerem Shalom (Ashar II)
The El-Arish and south Gaza plans are similar. The difference between them is south Gaza’s nearness to Kerem Shalom, which enables close operational integration of the seaport and the dry port via a port corridor, a specially designated 10-kilometer road for intraport traffic. The corridor would give the port’s haulage vehicles rapid and undisturbed passage between the ports. The dry port at Kerem Shalom would give the port backup facilities: storage areas for shipping containers, depots, granaries, storage tanks, and so on. The maritime port would provide only the basic maritime infrastructure: a breakwater, anchorage, and a pier, and would make it possible to limit the size of the Egyptian area needed for leasing to about three kilometers of the coastal strip. The required initial investment would be about $150 million. Because the port would be expected to be profitable, the investment in it would be funded by private sources.
Israeli security: Identical to the El-Arish plan.
Palestinian national aspirations: A more satisfactory solution than El-Arish because of the proximity to Gaza.
Economic desirability: The need for an independent maritime infrastructure would require greater investment, but the nearness and integration between the seaport and the dry port would save on operational costs. That proximity and integration would be advantageous especially for Palestinian (and in the future, Israeli) agricultural exports.
Economic development: Identical to the El-Arish plan – but not in northern Sinai.
Political likelihood: Identical to the El-Arish plan except for the Egyptians’ involvement, which would be reduced to leasing out a small strip of remote and unpopulated coast.
Summary and Comparison of Plans
The ranking of the plans (see the table) is simplified and intended mainly to facilitate comparison and assessment. Furthermore, each side – Israeli, PA, Hamas, and Egypt – will assign different weight to each criterion. For example, security is presumably the most important criterion for Israel, national aspirations for the PA. But the PA may compromise on national aspirations in return for economic desirability and economic development. The purpose of the table is not to indicate which plan is best but to show the interrelations between the plans and the different criteria in the hope of providing a point of departure for future negotiations.
|Israel’s security||Palestinian National Aspirations||Economic Feasability||Economic Impact|
|Ashdod/Kerem Shalom (Present)||* * *||–||*||* *||–|
|Gaza City (Hamas)||–||* * *||* *||* *||–|
|Gaza Island (Katz)||*||*||*||*||–|
|El-Arish/Kerem Shalom (Ashar I)||* * *||*||* * *||* *||* * *|
|South Gaza/Kerem Shalom (Ashar II)||* * *||* *||* *||* * *||*|
In an initial assessment of the plans, the south Gaza plan appears to be the only one that is feasible. It offers a satisfactory solution for Israeli security and an almost satisfactory solution for Palestinian national aspirations; it is also the only one that can be implemented immediately – with Egyptian consent.
Kerem Shalom Tristate Industrial Park
The Gaza Strip is congested. Kerem Shalom is located at the widest and least populated section of Gaza, where empty, developable land is still available. Additional land could be provided by Israel as part of the future territorial exchange between Israel and Palestine. Kerem Shalom is strategically located at the intersection of the Gazan, Israeli, and Egyptian borders. The core component of the south Gaza port plan is the expansion of the Kerem Shalom inland port into a major industrial/logistical park, based on export/import-related industries. The complex could become a tristate Free Trade Zone (FTZ) / special Economic Zone (ECZ), jointly managed by Palestine, Israel, and Egypt. It is also expected that the Nitzana border-crossing terminal between Israel and Egypt will be relocated to Kerem Shalom.
A final peace agreement between Israel and Palestine would enhance the Israeli-Palestinian, intra-Palestinian, and Egyptian-Palestinian trade flows processed through Kerem Shalom. Moreover, the FTZ/ECZ operations and the related border-crossing traffic would be simplified as the security inspection dissipated in peacetime.
The south Gaza plan depends on Egypt’s consent. The plan accords with Egypt’s desire to minimize its involvement with the Palestinian issue, limiting it to leasing out a small sliver of shoreline in a remote, uninhabited border area in northern Sinai. Still, the location of the port gives Egypt important leverage in its relations with Gaza. The PA, based on unofficial contacts, is likely to support the plan, granting the PA de facto control over the entire south Gaza seaport/Kerem Shalom inland port complex.
The port could serve as the PA’s “engagement gift” to Gazans if they can achieve the (October 2017) Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Hamas, realizing that the Gaza City port plan is no-go, is not expected to object to the plan in light of its huge economic impact (creating jobs) and since, operationally, it is similar to the existing system. Israel, based on unofficial contacts, will support the plan if a satisfactory security system is established along the intraport corridor.
In addition to the possible port locations in Prof. Ashar’s study, security sources spoke of a boat marina in south Gaza,37 opposite the former Israeli Gush Katif area, as a possible location for some sort of port in the future.
All the sources we spoke with agreed that from a practical standpoint, Gaza has no need for a port of its own and that Israel’s ports, particularly the Ashdod port, can supply Gaza’s needs, especially with new piers being built.
The need to build a separate port for Gaza is essentially political. In talks with Israel, the Palestinians wanted a port for the PA as a token of sovereignty. Subsequently, when Hamas took over Gaza, it wanted a port for Gaza as a means of disengaging from both the West Bank and Israel. From Israel’s standpoint, the stigma of still being the occupying power in Gaza, despite having fully withdrawn from it, stems mainly from the “blockade” it supposedly imposes on Gaza. An official political solution of the port issue would help Israel get free of this stigma, which was one of the reasons for the worsening of its relations with Turkey, for example.38
In practice, the only port now serving Gaza is the Ashdod port, albeit in a way that is unofficial, ad hoc, and not based on an agreement. The traffic of goods from and to Ashdod passes through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The advantage of this ad hoc arrangement is that security is entirely in Israel’s hands.
As a way of making this arrangement official from a political standpoint, Gen. (res.) Yom-Tov Samia, former head of Southern Command, proposed giving the PA a pier at the Ashdod port,39thereby solving the problem of the ostensible “blockade on Gaza.”
Prof. Ashar has also looked into this solution. He further proposes an option of leasing an area north of Gaza within Israel to the PA40
The advantage is that Israel would be completely in charge of security; the disadvantage is that there would be no room for Palestinian employment centers, as offered by the option of the port adjacent to the Philadelphi Route in Sinai. The former option has no connection to Egypt, and it appears that at this stage, given Egypt’s great sensitivity to what occurs in Sinai, it would not oppose it.
From Israel’s standpoint, the problem of leasing a site within Israel to the PA is that, based on the cumulative experience of the Palestinian negotiating strategy, they will never accept what is offered them and will immediately demand more. Hence, it is highly probable that once they receive status at the Ashdod port, they will immediately demand a safe passage within Israeli territory to Tarkumia in Har Hevron (the Hebron region in Judea). In the past Tarkumia was a station on the “safe passage route” between Gaza and the West Bank. Thus, instead of solving the political problem of the “blockade of Gaza,” Israel will be dragged into a dispute over an extraterritorial passage on its soil, and the pier for the PA will just move the blockade issue to a different context. Is the intention to lease the pier in Ashdod to the PA, or simply to designate a certain pier to serve the Palestinians?
Indeed, Hamas’ website reported that in a meeting between senior Palestinian security official Majid Freij and the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar,41 Freij said that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas had plans for
what would happen after the PA-Hamas reconciliation agreement. These plans included building a port in Gaza, resuming the operation of the airport in Gaza, and resuming the operation of the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank in line with the Oslo agreements of 1993. This was meant to convince Hamas to accept Ramallah’s positions, but Hamas was not convinced.
Another problem entailed by giving the PA a pier in Ashdod concerns the status of Egypt at the Rafiah crossing.
Egypt has difficult security problems in Sinai, and it needs Hamas’ help. The Rafiah crossing is a means of pressuring Hamas to help Egypt in its war on terror in Sinai. Officially opening a Palestinian pier in Ashdod would divest Egypt of this lever. Based on what is known about Hamas, without such pressure, it will not help Egypt but instead will act against it.
One of the important advantages of the Kerem Shalom crossing for Israel, so long as it is connected to the Ashdod port, is that the great majority of the exports to Gaza are from Israel. Regulating the Rafiah crossing would mean, naturally, that most of the goods entering Gaza would come from Egypt, at Israel’s expense.42
According to Egyptian sources,43 following the failure of the reconciliation talks and the worsening security situation in Sinai, Egypt will no longer agree to any port for Gaza in its territory, not in El Arish or a new port near the Philadelphi Route. Moreover, former President Morsi was willing to expand the Gaza Strip into Sinai, but current President Sisi now rejects the idea.
Now, Egypt would like for the port to be built inside Israel. In this context, it should be noted that there were several initiatives to establish the port to Gaza in Ashdod, including the initiative of retired Maj. Gen. Yom-Tov Samia.44 The problem with these initiatives was that they depended on providing a pier in Ashdod port to the Palestinian Authority.
All the sources we spoke with said that the need to build a special port for the Palestinians is a political need stemming from their aspiration to signify sovereignty and the agreements signed with Israel. In the absence of political authorization, a de facto situation was created whereby Israel allows the passage of goods into Gaza through the Ashdod port. Prof. Ashar also proposes a model for this option, following the firm Egyptian refusal to allow a port in Sinai.
The island plan led by Minister Katz appears to be popular, and there is support for it from many sources, with the exception of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who claims that the security aspect of the port proposal has been ignored.
Minister Yoav Galant, who was also the GOC of Southern Command and knows Gaza well, supports Katz’s plan. “The Gaza Strip has to be connected to something, apparently not Egypt. It must not be connected to Israel, so it must be something external,” he told Army Radio:45 “It is not simple to secure, but it is better than the existing situation.”
Since Minister Katz’s plan is long-term, while Gaza’s needs are immediate, one must consider as a temporary option the institutionalization of the existing situation, in which Israel has security authority at the Ashdod port.
Appendix – Prof. Asaf Ashar’s Plan
There are seven alternative port plans:
- Ashdod/Kerem Shalom (present system): No change; continue with the current system.
- Ashdod/Palestinian pier: Similar to the present system but using a designated pier for the Gazan cargo.
- Gaza City (Hamas plan): Construct a small port at Nuseirat, located at Gaza City’s southern boundary.
- Gaza Island (Katz plan):46 Construct a major port on an artificial island 4.5 kilometers off Gaza, connected to the mainland via a bridge with checkpoints manned by international inspectors.
- Cyprus transshipment/Gaza City (fishing pier): Bring ships with Gazan cargo first to the port of Larnaca, Cyprus, discharge, store, and inspect the cargo there (unclear whether by Israeli or international inspectors), then load it back onto smaller ships sailing under Israeli-navy escort to the present fishing port in downtown Gaza City.
- El-Arish/Kerem Shalom (Ashar Plan I): Construct a Palestinian autonomous port as part of the planned Egyptian El-Arish port, and truck the Gazan cargo to Kerem Shalom.
- South Gaza/Kerem Shalom (Ashar Plan II): Construct a Palestinian autonomous port on the Egyptian side of Gaza’s southern border, and truck the cargo to Kerem Shalom via a designated port-road through the Egyptian security zone along the border.
The two Ashdod plans, 1 and 2, are operationally costly and are totally unacceptable to the PA. Hamas’ port in plan 3 is unacceptable to both Israel and the PA on security grounds. In addition, the proposed site is too small and limited by dense refugee camps nearby. The offshore island in plan 4 is located within Gaza’s territorial waters, precluding Israeli security inspection of Gazan cargoes as currently performed at Kerem Shalom. The island’s construction is prohibitively costly ($5-$10 billion) and protracted (10 years?). Using an intermediate port in Cyprus, plan 5, is operationally costly due to multiple cargo handlings and the need for an escort by the Israeli navy. In addition, the Gaza City fishing pier is too small and cannot be expanded at its current site. Locating an autonomous Palestinian port in Egypt, plans 6 and 7, follows a common worldwide practice of shore-dwelling countries providing their landlocked neighboring countries with autonomous ports via long-term leases (99 years): Tanzania/Zambia, Peru/Bolivia, and Uruguay/Paraguay. El-Arish seems less desirable to both Egypt and the PA because of the Palestinian port’s location deep within Egypt, 40 kilometers from Gaza, mandating the use of Palestinian trucks on Egyptian roads. South Gaza, discussed below, seems to be the most technically, economically, and operationally viable alternative.
South Gaza Plan: Kerem Shalom’s Sea Extension
The principles underlying the South Gaza plans are:
- Retaining the present and well-proven system of processing all of Gaza’s traffic through Kerem Shalom;
- Developing port-related storage facilities in Kerem Shalom, transforming it into an inland (dry) port; and
- Connecting Kerem Shalom to a nearby, newly constructed, autonomous Palestinian seaport on Egyptian land under a long-term lease to the PA, a close substitute for a fully sovereign port.
The proposed Gaza seaport is a relatively small port, designed to meet the specific needs of Gaza: imports of construction materials (cement, steel, lumber), basic foods (grains, flour, oil, livestock), energy products (gasoline), cars, farm and earth-moving equipment, and exports of fresh produce, furniture, textiles, and so on.
The operational system of the seaport is based on direct delivery from ships to trucks heading to the Kerem Shalom inland port via a special 10-kilometer secured road designated as an intraport corridor. The port-road, considered part of the port facilities, will be located within the Egyptian no-man, one-kilometer-wide security zone along Gaza’s southern border. The unique sea/inland-port setting of the seaport reduces the Egyptian area required for the seaport to about three kilometers of a narrow strip of shoreline; it also reduces the total investment to about $150 million (Phase I, 450-meter berthage, 12-meter depth alongside, two million tons per year) with a construction time of two to three years. With its captive cargo, the south Gaza port is likely to be profitable and hence attractive to private investors.
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