Palestinians stand atop a boat at Gaza's seaport in Gaza City October 16.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since 2011, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz has been championing an audacious idea: the creation of an artificial island off the Gaza Strip’s coast for strategic infrastructure such as a commercial seaport, a water desalination facility, a power plant, a future option for an airport, and other commercial structures.
There are two dimensions to Katz’ thought process. The first is that this island would complete Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, still incomplete since the 2005 unilateral withdrawal; the second is that this island would fundamentally turn around Gaza’s deteriorating humanitarian situation, which is spiraling downward toward a disaster that will certainly engulf the Jewish state.
Minister Katz’s perseverance in his advocacy for this island is remarkable.
Many have given up on Gaza, believing that no improvements can take place while Hamas continues to rule the Strip. The minister’s concern for the humanitarian well-being of Gazans is also commendable. He pragmatically believes that whether or not Israel likes the coastal enclave’s rulers, there are two million people living there who will be Israel’s neighbors.
The minister’s vision accepts the inevitability of security risks and calls for two methods for mitigating them: Israeli maritime control around the island, and the ability to shut off access to the island via the three-milelong bridge which will connect it to Gaza’s shore.
Despite the good intentions behind the plan, it suffers from several problems which make it impractical and unrealistic for the foreseeable future.
The cost of such an island, projected at $6 billion, is a big non-starter.
International donors are fatigued by seeing the projects they fund in Gaza wiped out upon the eruption of war.
An investment this large should be spent in phases, and the risk should be dispersed, not concentrated in a single site.
The projected timeline also makes this project useless for addressing the current crisis: how can two million people living on the brink of catastrophe be expected to wait at least five years for the completion of this island? Katz’s proposal that Israel be in charge of all security matters, despite his call for the presence of international police, may ultimately mean further Israeli involvement in Gaza.
If such arrangements are going to be made, they should be fully run by an international body, albeit with full coordination with Israeli authorities.
Instead of planning a $6b. island, several short-term and tactical options exist for alleviating the suffering of Gazans while also addressing security concerns and progressing toward Israeli disengagement from the Strip. A key component of the Katz proposal, internationalization, can be applied to the electricity problem plaguing the Strip. Just as the World Bank set up the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, which is the organization responsible for water and sanitation services in Gaza, a similar arrangement could take the management of electricity out of Palestinian hands and put it under competent and neutral international management.
Internationalization could also be a valuable principle in setting up a low-capacity seaport on Gaza’s shoreline to test the viability of operation independent of Hamas’ control. This would significantly reduce cost, build trust, create hope, and allow for a transitional period that sets the stage for a larger-capacity seaport, perhaps on an artificial island.
Another more realistic low-cost development consistent with the spirit of Katz’s proposal is the establishment of a small, internationally-run humanitarian airport in Gaza, on the site of the former Gush Katif complex.
The precedents for such an airport are abundant, such as the UN-operated airport which was functional during the 1950s and ‘60s in Gaza, or the massive internationally-run humanitarian air operations conducted by the UN in areas suffering from violence, political instability and lack of infrastructure.
On another front, Israel could set up an international fund to cover treatment costs for Gazans caught in the political drama between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Indeed, several patients have died while waiting for permits and proper administrative and financial arrangements. If Israel is really interested in a resolution, it can create a process to bypass the current political intransigence in which both parties use patients cynically.
Recent surveys of Gazans show high interest in obtaining work permits for Israel. More construction materials could be allowed in under international supervision by the UN Office of Project Services, which has been overseeing reconstruction efforts in Gaza since 2014 with the help of a competent private company, CTG Global. Israel could help establish an international fund to pay for more Israeli electricity for Gaza.
There are numerous tactical options to stabilize the Strip and prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that Minister Katz and senior IDF members are worried about. It’s great that these Israeli decision-makers and strategists are considering viable options to improve Gaza’s conditions.
But for now, Katz’s island proposal remains a pipe dream.The author is a naturalized US citizen from the Gaza Strip, based in San Francisco, California. He is the founder of Project Unified Assistance which advocates for the establishment of a humanitarian, IDF-approved airport in the Gaza Strip.