High up within the defense establishment, some believe that the time has come for Israel to set up a civilian seaport for the Gaza Strip.
According to their view, if Gaza is going to stop exploding into conflict every two years, its 1.8 million residents need to have better hope for the future. This is part of the defense establishment’s concept of “restraining factors” that Israel can put into place, alongside military counterterrorism measures, to push back the next war for as long as possible.
Hamas, the argument goes, would be hard pressed to careen down the slope of a new war with Israel, even if it wanted to, if the Gazan economy were to begin to take off, enjoying imports and exports, allowing for jobs and income, and giving the civilian population something to lose. While there is no doubt that Hamas is responsible for Gaza’s dire economic state by insisting on jihad with Israel rather than investing in its people’s welfare, Israeli defense officials still feel that they can and should assist the Gazan people attain a better life.
The key question is whether a deep-water Gaza port can be built and secured without opening the door to weapons trafficking into the Strip, where Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups are always hungry for rockets, assault rifles, bombs, rocket- propelled grenades and an array of other arms to add to their domestically produced arsenals. Iran, Islamic State in Sinai and arms dealers from Libya to Sinai are more than willing to keep up the arms flow to Gaza.
The upper echelon of the IDF does not view the establishment of a Gazan seaport as a very risky endeavor, believing that the port can be secured, and that in the worst case scenario, it could be taken out of commission in no time at all.
While it is true that Israel sends some 900 trucks per day into Gaza, carrying all manner of goods, medical equipment, food, fuel and construction material, in reality this constitutes little more than an oxygen pipe keeping the Gaza Strip’s economy functional, but not much more.
Earlier this week, security forces announced the arrest of a suspected Gazan weapons smuggler who disguised himself as a fisherman.
In a joint navy, Shin Bet and Israel Police operation, security forces said that during questioning, “it emerged that for a lengthy period, he was involved in sea-based smuggling of weapons and other items, for Hamas and other terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip.”
The suspect allegedly smuggled ammunition and liquid fiberglass used to manufacture rockets. Details on Hamas’s operational plans in the Mediterranean Sea also arose in the investigation, the domestic intelligence agency said, including its use of fishing boats to disguise its activities.
Would the creation of a seaport enable Hamas to upgrade its weapons smuggling program? According to former navy chief V.-Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
He told the 101.5 FM radio station on Tuesday, “In general, my view is absolutely opposed to a Gaza port. It is a certain recipe for Iranian military boats arriving in Gaza. We do not want that to happen.”
Hamas, he added, has “very high motivation to smuggle via the sea. It uses fishing boats to smuggle between Sinai and the Gaza Strip,” and the need for sea arms-trafficking routes has grown since Egypt began blocking smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza.
But others took a different view. Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, head of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Jerusalem Post that a Gazan port would assist, not harm, Israeli security.
Brom, who in the IDF headed the Strategic Planning Division in the Planning Branch of the General Staff, said, “I am among those who support the idea. Without a port, the Gaza Strip will continue to be a pressure cooker housing two million people which explodes every once in a while. There are a few good ideas that enable the operation of a port, with good security supervision, that will prevent it from being exploited to smuggle weapons.”
Such ideas include making every vessel en route to Gaza dock in Cyprus first, where its cargo will undergo a security check.
“Of course, there is no perfect solution, and here and there, things will get through. But massive smuggling will be prevented,” Brom said.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Moni Chorev, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the idea of a seaport for Gaza could not divorced from the wider strategic picture.
Chorev, a former IDF division commander and former head of the officer training school, told the Post that one must place the Gaza port question in a far wider context.
“Since Hamas rose to power in 2007, the Gazan economy has been kept down. Is there room to change Gaza’s economic situation? This question is not only about Gaza, however. If you look at the Palestinians as a whole, one must weigh up how creating economic growth in Gaza will affect [President] Mahmoud Abbas, the PA, and its ability to rule,” he said.
That question, in turn, is tied into how Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and perhaps Turkey will interact with Israel and the Palestinians in the coming years, Chorev argued. “If you want to enlist the Egyptians, one must realize that they view Hamas as a sort of extension of their biggest enemy, the Muslim Brothers,” he said.
Thus, a port would have an impact on the wider Palestinian, Arab and regional arena.
After weighing up those factors, Chorev continued, within Gaza a port would serve Israeli deterrence. In light of the fact that all past three wars fought by Israel in Gaza have been aimed at deterrence rather than toppling Hamas or destroying it militarily, a port would further Israeli deterrence, as “it would be right to build something that they would not want to lose,” he said.
The security question of whether the port can be secured is the most narrow question of all, Chorev said.
“We can supervise it and prevent weapons smuggling. I think those things have solutions, through technological components and international supervision,” he said.
In the short term, he said, Israel should seek a balance, where it would give Gazans hope by strengthening them economically, including the construction of a seaport.
“I would not fear this at all. It would very much strengthen our security. They would have something to lose. Today, we have a situation in which Hamas is prepared to absorb damage,” he added.
If Gazans are provided with new hope and an economic horizon, Hamas will be significantly less willing to risk the wrath of the people it controls by launching reckless and costly military attacks on Israel, he said.