x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israel plans 'harbour island' off Gaza Strip

Israelis' idea for $10bn artificial floating island that would regulate trade through the Gaza Strip is 'pure fantasy', say Palestinians.

Israel says it wants to build an island off blockaded Gaza that would include an airport and a seaport.
Israel says it wants to build an island off blockaded Gaza that would include an airport and a seaport.

JERUSALEM // Israeli officials have announced plans to build an artificial island that would regulate trade through the Gaza Strip, but some Palestinians have rejected the idea as "pure fantasy".

Israel's transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, unveiled the plan on Wednesday, billing it as a way to give Palestinians access to their air and seaports. Perhaps more important, it would lessen Israel's burden of imposing its blockade on Gaza while providing reassurance that the territory's Hamas rulers would still be denied weapons imports.

Mr Katz's spokesman, Ilan Leizerovich, said Israel expects the international community to finance the island's estimated construction cost of between US$5 billion and $10bn (Dh18.3bn to Dh36.7bn).

Once finished, Mr Leizerovich said, an international body such as Nato would take control of the facility and leave operational oversight to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules the West Bank.

He said that while the government had yet to receive a formal response from PA officials, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, its defence minister, Ehud Barack, and parliamentarians have already given the project their approval.

"Very soon this plan will be offered to vote in the government," Mr Leizerovich said.

Yet PA leaders appeared surprised by Wednesday's announcement, with one unnamed official even calling it "pure fantasy".

Ghassan Khatib, a PA spokesman, flatly opposed the idea, criticising it as an attempt "to divert the attention of the international public opinion from the real causes of the suffering of the people of Gaza".

"We think if Israel were serious in helping the Palestinians of Gaza, they should first lift the blockade, and second, allow the reintegration of the West Bank and Gaza and the emergence of a Palestinian state," he said.

He added that "anything short of ending occupation and allowing for a two-state solution is not going to be useful".

Observers said it is difficult to envision the project's viability without the support of Palestinian officials, including Hamas, which violently took control of Gaza from PA forces in 2007.

Mr Katz told Army Radio on Wednesday that the "Israeli military would continue the naval blockade", even if in "a more localised way". It would open a "political horizon on the key question of Gaza, without having to rely on Hamas".

An unnamed Hamas spokesman also rejected the idea, telling Reuters on Wednesday that it amounted to little more than "a Zionist effort to internationalise" the blockade.

Mr Netanyahu appears to be putting forward a number of similar ideas in order to avoid having to confront the currently deadlocked peace talks and improve his image abroad away from that of an intransigent leader when it comes to the Palestinian issue.

Earlier this month, officials from his office leaked plans for reaching a final agreement with Palestinians by way of interim arrangements. Palestinian leaders immediately rejected the idea.

Palestinian and Israeli officials have been unable to restart their most recent attempt at peace negotiations, which collapsed in September when Israel refused to extend a partial freeze on settlement construction. The country's right-wing government has come under mounting international criticism for its pro-settler policies and grown alarmed of recent Palestinian diplomatic efforts aimed at garnering support for an independent state.

Mr Leizerovich said Israeli officials had been developing the artificial island plan in earnest for roughly 18 months. They announced it to the media on Wednesday before informing their counterparts in the PA. "We wanted to feel the response from the world first because everything is ready. The plan is finished," he said.

The island, projected to be finished in six to 10 years, is planned to host resort hotels and a marina in addition to the port facilities and a desalination plant. It would be located 4.5 kilometres off the Gazan coast, and a bridge would connect it to the mainland.

Mr Leizerovich estimated that its construction would create 100,000 jobs, which would be offered to Palestinian labourers.

hnaylor@thenational.ae