A proposal by an Israeli minister to construct an island to serve as a port that would open up the blockaded Gaza Strip to the world has gained adherents from Israeli security experts, who view it as a way to avoid further rounds of conflict with the coastal enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.
But the initiative by Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz is receiving a cold reception from both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, both of which doubt Israel is actually interested in alleviating the suffering of Gazans.
For almost the last decade, since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, the Strip has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade, its contact with the outside world closed off and its economy ravaged by the strictures and three wars with Israel. The goods that do pass into Gaza come overland after rigorous Israeli inspection.
Israel says the sea blockade is aimed to stop smuggling of weapons to Hamas, but Palestinians and their supporters view it as a collective punishment originally aimed at turning the population against the Islamist group.
But now, Katz says, his plan for a port on an artificial island off the Gaza coast can remove Gaza's isolation while safeguarding Israel's security.
''The artificial international island that will be linked to the coast by a bridge with a security checkpoint will give the Strip a humanitarian and commercial outlet to the world without endangering Israel's security,'' he told reporters during a press conference last week.
Katz came up with his proposal based on assessments of security specialists that the situation in Gaza, where there is no economic horizon, is untenable and ''that in the end Gaza will collapse,'' his spokeswoman, Maayan Sarig, told The Media Line. He also hopes the project will reduce international pressure on Israel over its blockade.
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Katz's plan calls for creating an eight square kilometer island linked to Gaza by a four and a half kilometer bridge. He says that in the future an airport could be established, and hotels could be built. The cost of creating the island would be five billion dollars, to be paid for by the international community.
The bridge will have a security checkpoint to be controlled by international security forces while Israel would maintain control at sea, according to the plan.
On an island, isolated on all sides by the sea, it would be easier to achieve full monitoring of goods than if the port were on the mainland, security experts say.
The plan has been in the works for several years but Katz is now pressing for its early approval by the security cabinet after its main opponent, former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon, stepped down from the cabinet last month. Ya'alon doubted that inspection arrangements could be devised guaranteeing Israel's security, according to the Ha'aretz newspaper.
A spokesman for the new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, declined to comment on the plan as did a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Katz's office says the plan has the backing of security specialists. Shaul Shay, former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, voiced enthusiasm for it during an interview with The Media Line.
''It's a good idea,'' he said. ''Gaza needs a port that will enable passage of goods and necessities for its 1.5 million people,'' he said. But, he stressed, Israel would need to have oversight of the security inspections. ''We can't rely on someone else for this.''
Shay, who is affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said the plan, if implemented, would reduce chances of another round of conflict to follow up three wars in the last eight years. ''Everything that gives hope is good,'' he said, adding that such a project will create many jobs.
''A project of this size with international funding makes the chance that they will start something against Israel smaller, it gives them something to lose. The more they have to lose the lower will be their motivation to open a round (of hostilities).''
Military commentator Erez Wiener, writing in the NRG website, also voiced backing for the plan and said it would provide a window of opportunity to invite Turkish participation in development of the port, something that could push forward Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, which was agreed upon Sunday to end a six year rift. ''A project like this with international funding can be an excellent vent to release hot air and to provide hope to Gaza residents,'' he wrote.
But Palestinians from both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority voiced criticism and distrust of Katz's intentions. ''This seems to be from the imagination. I don't know if there is seriousness on the Israeli side to do that,'' said Ghazi Hamed, a Hamas leader who is deputy foreign minister in Gaza. ''From time to time, the Israelis talk of giving, facilitating and support but the situation in Gaza is still miserable.'' He said that what is needed is a comprehensive lifting of the Israeli siege on the Strip. ''We need Israel to lift the siege, to open the crossings, to allow for export and import and for all building materials and free movement and access of people to and from Gaza and to establish the seaport and airport.''
Asked if Hamas would agree to an Israeli or a third party role at the port, Hamed said it is not time to answer that question.
''Let's talk about the principle-if Israel agrees to the principle to lift the siege, establish the seaport and open the crossings we can talk about other arrangements.''
Meanwhile, Hossam Zumlot, strategic affairs adviser to West Bank based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of trying to reinforce the split between the West Bank and Gaza. ''This is a dubious and politically motivated plan to ensure the continuation and institutionalization of Palestinian division, the final severing of Gaza from the rest of the occupied territory of the state of Palestine and delivering a lethal blow to the prospects of a two state solution.''
''We question the motive,''Zumlot added. ''If the motive is elimination of human suffering than lift the illegal, criminal siege imposed for nine years. But the motive is not that."
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