By Eleanor Beevor
One might think that any development to open Gaza up to the rest of the world would be unmitigated good news for Palestinians. Yet Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s visit to Nicosia in Cyprus last week, to discuss building a port on the Cypriot coast from which to ship goods to Gaza, has left Palestinians divided, and skeptical.
This port is not an entirely new suggestion. International organisations, including the United Nations, have been pushing for a freer passage of goods into the Gaza strip for years. Israel has barricaded maritime access to Gaza, fearing that Hamas would exploit any opportunities to smuggle in weapons via the coast.
Thus all supplies entering Gaza must now be trucked overland from Israel. This seriously reduces the goods and opportunities that inhabitants of the strip have access to. It has led to Gazans living in dire poverty, with few prospects to improve their situation, and only four hours of electricity supplied every day.
Although Israel has exercised tight control over the strip for the last quarter century, Gaza’s economy has declined especially sharply over the past few years. Miriam Marmur, the International Communications Coordinator for Gisha, an Israeli NGO that campaigns for freedom of movement for Palestinians, told Al Bawaba:
“Until 2007, when restrictions on movement of Palestinians were further tightened, Israel and the West Bank were the natural destination markets for Gaza-produced goods, with 85% of Gaza’s outgoing goods sold in these areas. In 2010, following the Marmara Flotilla, Israel allowed Gaza goods to be exported abroad only, and just a handful of trucks departed Gaza every month, usually as part of subsidized projects.
The loss of access to its natural markets in Israel and the West Bank was one of the major contributors to Gaza’s economic paralysis, for the collapse of businesses and for the high rate of unemployment, which, in turn, resulted in significant dependency on humanitarian aid.”
Special pier in Cyprus
A functioning sea route could, in theory, be a remedy for Gaza’s economic stagnation. But the reason for locating it in Cyprus, 400 kilometres from the Gazan coast, is so that Israel would be able to retain absolute control over what the departing ships carry.
The plan is to build a special pier in a Cypriot port for cargo ships bound for Gaza, where they could be subjected to Israeli monitoring systems. But Palestine analysts are arguing that Israel’s desire for absolute control of Gaza is the crux of the problem, and thus a shipping route from Cyprus will not deliver significant change.
Vegetable seller seeks to break Gaza siege imposed by Israel since 2007 (AFP)
Professor Laleh Khalili, an expert in Palestine Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, told Al Bawaba:
“A port in Gaza has since 1993 been part of the provisions of the (now dead) Oslo Accords, and at every stage, the intransigent Israeli government has prevented the implementation of such a policy. As recently as 2014, Germany, France and Britain were pushing Israel to allow for the establishment of a shipping route between Gaza and Cyprus that would – in the absence of any land routes - allow for the delivery of materials for survival for the Gazans.
My sense is that reviving the Gaza-Cyprus route is a pre-emptive plan by Israel to forestall the possibility that Gazans would actually control the port or the shipping route and Israel would continue to maintain full control of the venture.
I doubt that such a port will be anything but a mechanism for importation of goods for sustaining basic life in Gaza, and very strongly doubt it will be used as an export port. Certainly there is no way that Israel would allow Palestinian people to leave via this port, so frankly I don't see this as anything but yet another modality of control by Israel.”
No doubt a majority of Palestinians will also be entertaining suspicions about Israel’s motives for the shipping route. However, given the dire circumstances in Gaza, the temptation for improvements of any kind may be hard to resist - not only for Gazans themselves, but also for Hamas, the governors of the Gaza strip.
March of Return Protest (AFP/JACK GUEZ)
The rivalry between Hamas and their Palestinian Authority (PA) counterparts in the West Bank is a historical one. But relations between the two regions have soured even further in the last few months, particularly after the PA’s 38,000 employees in Gaza received cuts to their salaries, or went unpaid outright.
This development is thought to be related to the PA-Hamas feud. There is thus a serious chance of divergence between Palestinian leadership wings, as they use the port to try and gain leverage over each other.
Hugh Lovatt, the Policy Fellow on Israel-Palestine for the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Bawaba:
“The project will first and foremost be pitched at Hamas as a quid pro quo: providing Gaza with an economic life line with the aim of easing the humanitarian and socio-economic conditions within the Strip, which have not only caused severe hardships for Gazans but also increased pressure on Hamas as Gaza’s de facto rulers. In return, Israel hopes that Hamas will commit to a long term ceasefire with it. A key determinant factor in whether any economic initiative, including the port, can deliver for Gaza is whether such a plan is matched by an easing of Israeli border restrictions. For now, it remains unclear whether Israel will consider relaxing these restrictions as part of a Cyprus port initiative.
Hamas will be cautious about the plan for the reasons mentioned above. However, if it is matched with an easing of restrictions then one could imagine it adopting a constructive position — so long as it is not forced to give up its weapons or security control over Gaza.
For now, it is President Abbas that has been the most resistant towards these sorts of initiatives both past and present. Abbas is pursuing a zero sum game towards the movement, in the belief that the only solution is to bring Hamas to its knees by further tightening restrictions and sanctions on Gaza. He also fears that such a plan could provide a basis for bypassing him when it comes to dealing with Gaza, and potentially creating a Palestinian mini state there.”
On the Gaza Border as part of March of Return Protests (AFP File Photo)
Shipping route tied to U.S. Plans
However, it is increasingly apparent that the Cyprus shipping route is bound up with America’s plans for a fresh Israel-Palestine peace deal. Given President Trump’s highly controversial move of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in December, Palestinians are furious with Washington, and have next to no faith that they will be offered terms they find acceptable. The unpopularity of the Trump administration means Palestinian leaders will want to avoid appearing to make any concessions to America.
Yet there are reports that Israel’s plans for Gaza, including the port, were discussed with America’s Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt, as well as Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior White House Adviser and son-in-law, who is drafting the latest peace deal. And recent reports on the American strategy suggests that it will begin with a focus on Gaza.
Given that PA President Abbas has refused to engage with American negotiators after the Jerusalem embassy move, and the opportunity that rifts in Palestinian leadership presents Israel, this isn’t especially surprising. But it does carry a serious risk to the PA, and to the Palestinian national project as a whole. However, the magnitude of the risk may also incentivize new cooperation between the PA and Hamas.
Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Israel-Palestine, told Al Bawaba:
“Linking this modality to current US peacemaking efforts increases PA opposition to it dramatically. The leadership in Ramallah fears that the US concluded it cannot win the support of Arab governments to its plan, and has shifted instead to mitigating Gaza's plight in a way which will deepen the divide between the West Bank and Gaza.
Leaders in Ramallah publically call upon Hamas not to cooperate with US efforts which, they argue, aim to liquidate Palestinian national identity. Hamas leaders reply that were Ramallah to renew payment of salaries to PA employees in Gaza, it would not need to reach a separate deal.
Their shared sense that the plan is a threat to Palestinian nationalism may lead them to form a new PA government, acceptable to both, by which Hamas will accept PA control over the crossings at Gaza's envelope and over decisions to use military force against Israel and Abbas will accept renewing payment of salaries to Gaza. Such a government may deliver intra-Palestinian consent regarding a Gaza-dedicated pier in Cyprus.”
Whether the fresh dangers to Palestinian statehood will be enough to persuade the PA and Hamas to cooperate remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Palestinian leaders will need to weigh the short-term gains against the long-term costs of any offers put on the table.
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