An artificial Gaza island is an impractical pipe dream

The fact is that what holds back Gaza’s economy is not lack of an artificial island, but Israel’s restrictions on goods traveling to Gaza, and Hamas control of the Strip.

By
August 7, 2016 21:24
Palm Island

THE PALM island in Dubai is similar in size to the proposed Gaza Island, but it has been built, whereas the Gaza island never will, argues the author.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel can’t solve the problem of droughts affecting the Kinneret. It can’t solve the problem of the Dead Sea slowly disappearing. It can’t solve its housing crisis. But it can build an island off the coast of the Gaza Strip, of a sort never built before in the world, in cooperation with numerous agendas, interests, states and parties that don’t get along?

For years Transportation Minister Israel Katz has argued that Gaza needs a port to import goods for the roughly 2 million people crowded into the stifling strip of land. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post published Friday the minister noted that building a new port for Gaza would alleviate international pressure on Israel to end its blockade, restrain Hamas and constitute a windfall for Gazans. This new port should be developed under Israeli supervision, according to Katz, but Israel shouldn’t have to pay for it.

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The solution Katz suggests is to build an eight square kilometer island connected to Gaza by a 4.5 kilometer bridge. Projected cost: $5 billion. The island would be built in five years. According to reports defense experts support the idea and the Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry think the plan is feasible and a solution to Gaza’s woes.

While this idea seems attractive, it is the wrong solution.

The Gaza Strip has seen a series of pipe dreams similar to this artificial island concept. In 1998 US president Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat opened an international airport in Gaza. At a cost of almost $100 million, paid for by Egypt, Japan, Spain, Germany and Saudi Arabia, among others, the airport had a 3.5 km. runway and Moroccan architects were flown in to add the finishing touches. It barely survived for two years before Israel destroyed it during the Second Intifada.

In 2005, on the eve of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, James Wolfensohn, the US Special Envoy, helped arrange the purchase of the Jewish settlers’ greenhouses for $14 million. Soon after Israel’s withdrawal many of the estimated 3,000 greenhouses were looted and many were no longer functioning. Over the years aid groups have continued to tinker with the remaining greenhouses. In 2010 USAID said that it installed 86 greenhouses in the Strip. With the unending conflict and failure to establish mass-production agriculture, and restrictions on exports, it seems the Gazan greenhouse economy has never met the post-disengagement vision of a thriving economy. Gisha, an NGO that supports freedom of movement, claimed in 2010 that the Strip’s exports were “negligible numbers” to “distant markets.” In 2011 two truckloads of peppers were exported to Europe, the “first in years,” according to Maan news agency, and the Strip received $206,000 from tomato sales – an absolutely trifling amount.

Similar to the failure of the greenhouse project and the airport was the decision to deploy the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the Rafah crossing. It was supposed to help monitor the border crossing with Egypt, but after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, EUBAM suspended operations at Rafah and removed its staff to Ashkelon. Similarly the Erez industrial zone that employed 4,000 people became an economic failure after 2005.

Given all these failures of much smaller projects, why do Israel’s pipe-dreamers think it’s possible to build an island similar in size to Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah off the Strip? Israel can’t even build a Palm Jumeirah for its own citizens to alleviate the housing crisis. It can’t deal with problems such as Beduin land claims in the Negev or even sort out housing permits for Arab citizens, but somehow it thinks it can build an artificial island – that others will pay for.

And how will the island be connected to the coast? A small, vulnerable bridge, of the sort at Hadera and Ashkelon power plants. But that’s not all. According to Israel Hayom there would be an “airport, staff areas, hotels and advanced facilities for energy production and desalination.” So basically all the things that Israel can barely build in Ashdod, that take years and years, will be magically conjured up off the coast of Gaza, one of the poorest, most crowded places in the world.

Opposing the Gaza Strip island fantasy is not popular because it makes one seem to be opposing Gaza’s “hope” for the future and a “monitored fiscal solution.” However, the Gaza island idea is not a future for Gaza, it is just a false hope, another EUBAM, another Gaza international airport, another greenhouse fiasco waiting to happen.

The little bridge connecting the island to the mainland could never be completed, because Israel won’t work with Hamas, and it won’t trust its partners, whether the EU or Saudis, to ensure security along the causeway. One Islamic Jihad missile or one attempted terrorist attack by groups such as Hamas or Islamic State (ISIS) would cause the whole $5b. dollar project to grind to a halt. ISIS already fired a guided missile at an Egyptian boat last year; no one thinks that a Kassam or mortars would be fired at the Gaza Palm Jumeirah? A few mortars and the billion dollar facility would be closed and a humanitarian crises would exist as the internationals based there would need to be evacuated. It almost seems like the island is set up to fail. Why would Israel want to administer, patrol and protect an island off the coast of Gaza and sink deeper into administering Gaza after disengaging from it 11 years ago? It seems like a thinly veiled way to end up controlling three sides of Gaza, with no noticeable benefit, except an albatross-like island and its endless problems to administer.

A REAL solution to Gaza’s problems would be to invest all the money that would have been wasted on this non-existent, nonsensical island in enlarging the port of Ashdod with a dedicated pier for Gazan goods. EUBAM inspectors are already relaxing in Ashkelon, they could be tasked, along with others, to monitor shipments to the pier.

The fact is that what holds back Gaza’s economy is not lack of an artificial island, but Israel’s restrictions on goods traveling to Gaza, and Hamas control of the Strip. Since the 2014 conflict the number of trucks entering Gaza per month has doubled to around 10,000. Instead of investing in an island, why not invest in more efficient inspections for trucks? Why not expand the types of goods permitted for import and ease restrictions on travel? Why not expand the international cooperation with countries such as Turkey that want to invest in infrastructure? With the recent allegations against charities such as World Vision that work in Gaza, claiming money was siphoned off to Hamas, it shows the real problem in Gaza relates to Hamas using the goodwill of others for nefarious means. Until Hamas wants to invest in the people of Gaza, and Israel wants to lessen its blockade, no amount of Palm Gaza Jumeirah islands will help.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman.


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