Gaza island proposal excites Hamas while angering Fatah and Egypt
Cairo - A proposed artificial island off the coast of Gaza is giving Hamas hope that Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian enclave might end. The idea is, however, igniting worry among Fatah, a Hamas rival and the movement of the Palestinian Authority, that Palestinians’ statehood dream could end, too.
Unveiled by Israeli Intelligence and Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, the project envisions an island with a port, a cargo terminal and likely an airport on it to bring in essential goods for almost 2 million people living in Gaza.
“If implemented, the project will ease the movement of people and goods into and from Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. “It will put an end to the blockade, which is causing untold suffering to our people.”
Gaza suffers shortages on many fronts. Medicine is hard to find at its hospitals; electricity is provided only three hours a day and construction materials are lacking. The poverty rate is rising dramatically and unemployment has reached close to 50%.
Katz said the proposed island, a plan introduced at an Israeli cabinet meeting in June, would help Tel Aviv disengage from Gaza, a move declared in 2005 but never completed. The project would, he was quoted by the Israeli news site Ynetnews as saying, change the view that Israel is to blame for the deteriorating conditions of Gazans.
There is total opposition to the proposal in Ramallah, the Fatah stronghold. Fatah officials say Gaza with a connection to the outside world would be under no obligation to be part of the Palestinians’ statehood dream.
“This will deal this dream a fatal and final blow,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, the decision-making body in the West Bank-ruling movement. “This is why Fatah totally rejects it and the Palestinian Authority rejects it, too.”
Repeated attempts to unite Hamas and Fatah have failed. The two movements, at loggerheads since Hamas captured Gaza in 2007, need to work together to compel Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, experts said.
The artificial island project will cost $5 billion and can be implemented over five years. If approved by the Israeli cabinet and international partners, the 525-hectare island could be built by an international consortium, 5km off the coast of Gaza. It would be connected to the mainland via a causeway, which would include a section that could be raised to cut off access any time.
The island, Katz said, would improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, without endangering Israel’s security needs.
In Egypt, however, this is perceived as a looming danger. Observers said that, apart from ending the Palestinians’ statehood dream, the project would turn Gaza into a security menace.
“A Gaza turning into an independent state with its own port and airport will entice Hamas to make it a radical entity that threatens the security of its neighbours, especially Egypt,” said Egyptian Member of Parliament Samir Ghattas. “Israel is anxious to implement the project because it will serve its original purpose of further polarising the Palestinians and getting rid of their demand to have their own state.”
Egypt has intensified pressure on Hamas for almost four years by often closing the Rafah Crossing on the border with Israel.
Cairo accuses Hamas of aiding a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) that has been fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai.
In recent weeks Hamas showed signs of yielding to the Egyptian pressure by beefing up security on the border with Sinai and establishing a security fence in the area. Cairo reciprocated by sending hundreds of tonnes of fuel to Hamas to operate Gaza’s power plants.
Egypt opposed the Gaza port and airport project when it was proposed by Turkey almost two years ago and used its leverage in Tel Aviv to convince Israel to reject it.
Abu Zuhri said opponents of the project want Gaza to continue to suffer and its people to lose hope that their living conditions will improve.
“These opponents want to ensure that Gaza’s suffering will not come to an end,” he said. “To these people I say: We have a right to live like humans.”