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A revived dream of the oft-thwarted Gaza seaport

Abu Jihad, a Palestinian businessman has lived in Istanbul for more than 25 years and exporting goods to Gaza for almost all of that time. “For God’s sake,” he asked over coffee, “why should I pay all that money to the Israeli customs services? Why don’t we have our own seaport with international observers if Israel is so afraid of smuggling weapons?” With all of Israel’s restrictions and constraints, he continued, every war it wages on the people of Gaza makes Hamas emerge stronger, so why does it continue with its stupid policy of besieging Gaza?

“As far as I remember,” said Abu Jihad, “according to the Oslo Accords, the international community pledged a seaport for Gaza. Why didn’t we mobilise all efforts to renew that promise?” Such a move, he insisted, would be enormously important both practically-speaking and symbolically. “Israel is squeezing our people economically by controlling everything and taking the taxes imposed on our products,” he added. “By confining our young people in the biggest open prison in the history of mankind, it will lead Palestinian youth to disbelieve in the value of human rights. That’s why this status quo has to be breached and the international community must create a new opening for Gaza.”

For the Palestinians in Gaza, a floating harbour would be a stepping-stone towards real sovereignty. It embodies the aspiration to break the suffocating blockade of the enclave. Such an outlet would pave the way to economic independence that would reduce the Strip’s reliance on increasingly hostile neighbours, with Israel on one side and Egypt on the other.

When the concept was proposed by Oslo in 1993, Egypt, the EU and the UN were enthused enough to start with a floating pier under international supervision to alleviate Israeli security concerns. Unfortunately, no tangible steps were taken and the idea has been frozen for years.

In 2005, the US-mediated agreement on movement and access in the Gaza Strip stipulated that talks could start afresh. However, Hamas won the democratic elections the following year and all plans were suspended once again under the pretext that the Islamists represented by Hamas had hijacked the territory. Paradoxically, Israel destroyed the Yasser Arafat International Airport, named after its “partner for peace”, and thus denied any kind of free access to or from the Gaza Strip; it was collective punishment of the Palestinians for electing Hamas.

After Israel’s war against the people of Gaza in summer 2014, a long-term truce was announced with the promise that the harsh blockade will be eased. The Rafah crossing into Egypt, we were told, would be opened and an internationally-monitored mechanism to enable trade to and from Gaza through a seaport or airport would be negotiated. None of these promises were fulfilled and the Palestinians have continued to live in miserable conditions. It is evident that the economic and social consequences that followed the 2014 war are more severe than any damage caused by any of the previous wars on the enclave.

Recent media speculation about a possible agreement being imminent have led to claims that there will be some surprises from the Israeli cabinet on this issue. Leaks suggest that many ministers look on a seaport favourably, despite denials by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who once claimed that the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is a myth.

A number of strategic analysts in the Israeli intelligence services have apparently recommended that the situation of Gaza should not be allowed to continue, as the consequences are just too serious. There appears to be support for a floating harbour, but not a permanent seaport, at least for the moment; the latter could be part of an overall peace agreement. Inevitably, there are those who say that such a concession would be seen as a sign of weakness and embolden Hamas. Israel believes that Hamas must lay down its arms as a prerequisite to any talks about a seaport. Its main concern is that the movement should not be able to use the port to import weapons. Previous agreements regarding a harbour in the Gaza Strip insist on the territory being “demilitarised”.

Despite the recent efforts by Turkey and Qatar to mediate a sustainable long-term truce in exchange for lifting the siege on Gaza — which include proposals for a regular ferry link between Gaza and Turkish Cyprus — the Egyptian government under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi remains opposed to such a move. The generals in charge in Cairo should, though, welcome an agreement as it will ease the public pressure on them for being responsible for helping to strangle Gaza. Sisi has told the Israelis that no such concession should be made as they try to re-build diplomatic bridges with Turkey.

Meanwhile, Egypt is more or less keeping the Rafah crossing closed, with only very limited openings. Rafah is Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world that doesn’t pass through Israel. Such intransigence is viewed by the Palestinians as collective punishment affecting all residents of Gaza, not just Hamas, which Sisi opposes as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The tunnels described as Gaza’s “lifeline” for basic necessities have been destroyed systematically by Egypt since the military coup in 2013.

It is not just the Egyptians who are against any possible agreement for a port. Shockingly, Azzam Al-Ahmed, a senior member of the Palestinian National Council, said on television that a link between Turkish Cyprus and Gaza is a desperate step to blackmail the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority, he insisted, will do everything possible to thwart it. He added that only when the “legitimate” PA restores its full authority over the Strip will all crossings and ports be opened, as it is the sole Palestinian body that is recognised internationally.

Fatah believes that Hamas is striving to cement its rule in Gaza, rather than engage in reconciliation with the PA, or cooperate in joint efforts to rebuild the Strip after the 2014 war. Ironically, although PA President Mahmoud Abbas has called repeatedly for a cease-fire, he now believes that such a deal would entail Hamas trying to usurp his — non-existent — political authority over Gaza. Fatah states publically that Hamas does not want the blockade to be lifted because, it claims, the Islamic movement uses the suffering of the people to gain more sympathy; an agreement for a port, says Fatah, would also assist the Israeli goal of separating Gaza from the West Bank.

On its part, Hamas accuses Abbas of evading accountability and shirking his responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as he has lost hope of having any political influence in the enclave unless he can convince the people about the effectiveness of the so-called “peace process”. Few ordinary Palestinians, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, are fully convinced about a process, but know definitely that there is no peace. The PA responds by accusing Hamas of being reluctant to give up its control over Gaza and allow PA personnel controlled by Ramallah to operate in the territory.

Such internal feuding is further evidence of the Palestinians’ political impotence. The people of Gaza are fed up of endlessly fruitless initiatives to ease their isolation. Hence, they have increasing trust in the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to bring about an end to the inhumane Israeli-led siege.

A floating harbour would be entirely feasible as part of Turkey-Israel reconciliation, with guaranteed international monitoring to preserve its integrity. Hamas accepts such a plan as the beginning of an international effort to reconstruct the Gaza Strip in exchange for a long-term ceasefire. The movement is, in the meantime, waiting on Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his objections and re-connect with Palestinian aspirations.

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

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