Israel mulls building offshore transport hub to ease Gaza blockade

© Suhaib Salem
Israel is actively seeking foreign investors to construct a $5-billion artificial island with a seaport, hotels and an airport just off the coast of the Gaza Strip to ease the blockade it imposed on the Palestinian enclave a decade ago.

The island, envisioned to be eight square kilometers, will be linked to Gaza by a five-kilometer bridge, Minister of Transportation and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz said on Monday.

The project would include the construction of a seaport and even an airport that would be administered by the Palestinians and the international community. Israel, however, under the proposal would supervise security of the island and maintain checkpoints on the bridge.

Israel imposed a blockade to prevent the import of weapons to Gaza after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Israel justifies the blockade as a vital measure to prevent weapons smuggling by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Tel Aviv. Israel allows some 850 truckloads of authorized cargo into Gaza daily.

As the conflict between Hamas and Tel Aviv continues, the militant organization has long insisted that one of the preconditions for a long-term truce would be the reopening of the destroyed Yasser Arafat Airport and creation of a seaport to boost the enclave’s economy.

Citing national security concerns, Katz said building an artificial island could be a compromise to ease the economic hardship of the Gaza Strip while potentially meeting Hamas’ demands.

“I do not think it is right to lock up two million people without any connection to the world,” Katz said at a briefing with foreign reporters. “Israel has no interest to make life harder for the population there. But because of security concerns we can't build an airport or seaport in Gaza.”

The proposal for the man-made island is currently being debated in the security cabinet, and is showing a lot of potential, Katz said. The politicians are now devising draft plans on how to maintain security at an offshore port that would be internationally funded. As an option, Israel is considering temporary closures of the bridge, if hostilities heat up between Gaza and Israel.

The minister also stressed that the island would not be built or funded by Israel but rather by foreign entities. Saudis, Chinese and private Israeli entities are being considered as possible investors. Katz said Israel would allow foreigners to enter Israeli waters to carry out construction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “exploring the option but has not yet made a determination,” an Israeli official involved in the talks told the Washington Post.

The Palestinian Authority, which has nominal control of the Gaza Strip, despite the Hamas-Fatah rift, called the plan “dubious” and politically motivated. The creation of the man-made island will lead to “the final severing of Gaza from the rest of the occupied territory of the state of Palestine,” Husam Zumlot, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, told AP.