It is difficult to overestimate the damage caused to the long-suffering people of Gaza by Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. The latest war has accelerated Gaza’s precipitous race to the bottom. But it also created an opportunity to reverse the destructive dynamic of conflict and restore Gaza’s ability to function normally.
The first step toward normalization is ending the calamitous siege of the Palestinian economy and allowing Gaza’s 1.8 million people to return to work in order to provide for their children and families. In addition, the establishment of a seaport in Gaza would encourage its economic and political rehabilitation, and signal the end of Gaza’s isolation.
Hamas’ demands in the current conflict include the opening of the Gaza Strip to international trade through borders with Israel and Egypt as well as via a reconstructed Gaza seaport and airport. Palestinians across all factions heartily endorse this demand. The prospect for Gaza seaport is also gathering international support. In a new “non-paper” on the elements for a sustainable cease-fire issued last week, Britain, France and Germany called for a study on “the implementation of an internationally supervised mechanism to enable trade to and from Gaza by sea.” Similarly, the most recent Egyptian proposal for a “permanent and comprehensive” cease-fire calls for negotiations on the construction of a seaport and airport 30 days after a truce is signed.
For years Gaza was viewed as a humanitarian basket case. Israel’s responsibilities to provide for the welfare of Gazans have been dialed down to keeping the territory on a “diet” – enabling the people to eat but not to work or trade with the outside world.
Meanwhile, the international community remained complicit in this unprecedented embargo that targets Gaza as the only place in the world where commercial imports and exports are all but banned. Israel’s no-trade-with-Gaza stance reflects the strategic choice to divorce itself from the Strip, notwithstanding continuing responsibility as the occupying power for the region’s inhabitants. Similarly, Egypt continues to oppose the creation of a functioning trade border with Gaza, viewing the region’s ability to trade as an Israeli responsibility.
The latest war has created an opportunity, but one that may soon pass, to undo this destructive policy, and begin the process of improving the living conditions of Palestinians trapped inside the enclave.
The opening of a Gaza port free from Israel’s absolute control would mark a real advance in the Palestinians’ ability to act in a sovereign manner. Gaza offers Palestinians a crucial gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and thus international trade. Gaza is also the western terminus of a trade route that has linked Arabia and the Mashreq – a region that includes Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – to the Mediterranean since biblical times.
Israel has so far opposed proposals to build a seaport in Gaza, but there are good and compelling reasons why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government should welcome it. In fact, Israeli officials have been quietly considering this option for at least a year. Officials want to finalize the task of reducing or ending Israel’s responsibility for managing a land border with Gaza that began under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” policy in 2005 and move Israel’s humanitarian responsibilities “offshore.”
In discussions with Palestinians of all factions in Cairo and Tel Aviv during the past year — that is, before the outbreak of war — Egyptian and Israeli officials were in the process of defining their interest in and conditions for the establishment of a maritime trade link to Gaza, the officials told me.
A Gaza port also meets Egyptian strategic and security interests. Egypt is committed to reducing the pressure to increase its responsibility for Gaza. A Palestinian seaport would lessen expectations for Cairo to shoulder additional responsibilities. Egypt also has a security interest in creating an alternative to what remains of the tunnel economy in Sinai that links the country to Gaza.
In operational terms a maritime trade link that operates according to internationally accepted security and administrative protocols could be created. For example, goods destined for Gaza would be bonded in a nearby Turkish or Cypriot port. A simple “roll on, roll off” facility in Gaza port would receive import and export goods. Under such an arrangement, a unified Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas would oversee the port’s security, administration and operation.
To give Israel assurances that the port won’t be used to smuggle arms, negotiators should seek a maritime security arrangement, which includes a third party. The Turkey-Israel maritime trade route via the port of Haifa, which transports Turkish goods via Israel to Jordan and the Gulf, offers an encouraging precedent. The Israeli-Palestinian security coordination in the operation of the trade border at Kerem Shalom is another important example.
Ultimately, the construction of a seaport, along with ending the blockade and insecurity in Gaza, would offer advantages to all parties involved. The real test for those convening in Cairo and in capitals around the world is to summon the political will to meet this challenge.