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The port that could turn the tide for Gazans

December 9, 2014 at 11:48 am

In 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed. They were meant to lead to an end to the Israeli occupation and the birth of a sovereign Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords also permitted the construction of a seaport in Gaza.

An empty piece of land, turned into mud by the recent rains, is all that remains of Gaza’s dream of this seaport. Just over fifteen years ago, a construction contract worth $73m million was signed and the dream looked close enough to grasp. The now empty piece of land had temporary shelters for engineers erected on it and the flags of France and the Netherlands flying above it.

Ziad Abaid has worked on the seaport project for over 20 years. Abaid, the director general of the Gaza seaports authority, envisages it would create thousands of jobs, boost the economy with imports and exports and connect Gazans with the globe via passenger ferry services. Gaza is in desperate need of the above, desecrated by blockades and bombardments, 80% of its population relied on humanitarian aid before the start of the latest Gaza war in 2014. “Gaza has been under tight siege for seven years – our only window is to the sea,” he said.

Abaid says, the fight for a seaport has meant endless “processes of negotiations.” Following the agreement under the Oslo Accords to build a seaport, the Dutch Government committed some NLG45 million (circa €23 million) to the Gaza Sea Port project; France committed additional US$20 million. In the late 90’s, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Dutch-French European Gaza Development Group (EGDG) signed a contract for the project. Due to Israeli obstruction, the contract expired before the works could start.

During a recent television interview Iman Jabbour, from the Israeli right of movement organization spoke of the value of a seaport. She said: “Gaza can’t be Singapore so long as there is no seaport, no freedom of movement between it and the West Bank and no economic development. How are goods going to be exported without a seaport?” Jabbour added: “When Israel lifts all travel restrictions and relinquishes its massive control over Gaza’s entire outer envelope, there really will be hope for economic development.”

Although the seaport was part of the Oslo agreement, “it took six years to obtain authorisation from the Israelis,” Abaid says. The technical studies had been done and the funding had been there. In 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum determined that the construction works could commence on 1 October 1999. In April 2000 construction was finally permitted to begin.

However, soon after, the second intifada was launched. Israeli bulldozers rolled onto the site from the nearby Israeli settlement and flattened the beginnings of the port. Administrative buildings the contracted company had erected were all destroyed and the flags of the European countries fell under the tank treads.

Dreams of a seaport were reignited again in 2005, when an American-brokered “agreement on movement and access” in Gaza said construction could start anew, and that Israel would “undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port.” But then Hamas won the elections, and Israel instead decided to officially seal Gaza off from the outside world through a land, sea and air blockade that remains in place today.

During the recent bombardment of Gaza, Palestinian leaders negotiating the terms for a durable truce in Cairo made the revival of the seaport project a prime demand. In a new “non-paper” on the elements for a sustainable cease-fire, Britain, France and Germany called for a study on “the implementation of an internationally supervised mechanism to enable trade to and from Gaza by sea.” Egyptian proposals for a “permanent and comprehensive” cease-fire called for negotiations on the construction of a seaport and airport 30 days after a truce was signed.

Aside from the much needed economic benefits, the importance of a seaport goes much deeper. Gaza’s airport, opened in 1996, was the base of Palestinian Airways, whose three planes flew daily to Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Morocco. It was a symbol of the future; of a Palestine not controlled by Israel and a Palestinian people not oppressed by it. The airport was bombed during the second intifada and its bullet marked shell stands abandoned in the sand.

Abaid says: “I want to travel and not see Egypt. I want to travel and not see Israel. I want to travel from Palestine. I am not asking for something impossible.” On Israel’s security concerns, Abaid said: “We have accepted a third party to monitor.” The only two ways out of Gaza, both of which are severely limited, require Palestinians to endure long hours of waiting and their exit and entry completely at the mercy of either Egyptian or Israeli border security. Many find the process humiliating and degrading.

“The right of movement is a human right,” added Abaid.

Gaza coastline is dotted with fisherman’s boats. Restrictions have confined them to fishing within 3 nautical miles and despite agreements to extend this, they are frequently arrested and injured by Israeli fire. As the fisherman struggle to eke out a living on Gaza’s coastline, the dream of a seaport has not been forgotten.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.