In the spring of 2016, news surfaced of a rather bizarre proposal made by Israeli minister of intelligence and transportation, Yisrael Katz (Likud). Katz pitched the idea of building an artificial island (or “port complex”) off the coast of the besieged Gaza Strip to Israel’s security cabinet. Gaza has been subject to a devastating blockade since 2007, when Hamas took control and Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity.”
Under Katz’s proposal, the island would connect to the Strip via a two-lane bridge tightly controlled by Israeli and international forces. As Katz envisions it, the island would host civilian installations and ports. It would open Gaza up to the outside world, provide for the day-to-day needs of Palestinians, and ultimately improve Israeli security without sacrificing its control over the Strip.
Katz allegedly came up with the idea in 2005 following Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza, though the more detailed plan only materialized last year. Since then, news of the project has periodically resurfaced in the Israeli and international press, though the initiative seemed to have effectively been buried by the government, perhaps because of its ambitious scope.
But, now, the scheme seems to be getting some wind in its sails. After reportedly obtaining approval for the project in April 2017 from U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt, Katz released a promotional video, called the “Gaza Artificial Island Initiative” on June 28, 2017. According to the video, Israel is “perceived” to be responsible for the well-being of Gazans, even though it “withdrew from the strip over a decade ago.” The burden is, therefore, on the country to “provide the Palestinians a humanitarian, economic, and transportation gateway to the world without endangering Israel’s security.”
As the video details, the island comes with a price tag of $5 billion and, if approved, would be located three miles off Gaza’s coast. It is slated to be 2.5 miles in length, 1.25 miles in width, and 1,300 acres in area. The island would host cargo and passenger ports, electricity/gas installations, desalination facilities, logistics centers, and a “future option airport.” It would be internationally financed, built, and owned, and policed by a vaguely defined international force. Israel would remain in control of security, as well as the island’s scanning/inspection facilities and internal checkpoints. Israel would also retain the right to sever connections between the Strip and the island, to exert pressure/collective punishment, in the event of popular Palestinian resistance.
A key question is why the initiative is resurfacing now. While Greenblatt’s approval was surely a catalyst, Katz also recently announced his intention to run for leadership of the Likud party. Katz’s chance of capturing this coveted position would be bolstered, if his island scheme manages to alleviate international criticism over the blockade, while ensuring Israel’s continued subordination/occupation of the Gaza Strip.
The proposal also compliments the “economic peace” plan championed by the Israeli right and members of the Trump administration, as an alternative/stalling tactic to the “peace process” that began in the 1990s under the Oslo Accords. Elements of the Israeli military establishment have recently voiced support for boosting socioeconomic conditions in the Strip, in order to undermine internal support for an increasingly isolated Hamas administration.
Most importantly, however, the project appears to be a way of increasing “cooperation and relations between Israel and countries in the region.” Amidst the recent political fall-out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Israel has been working to further normalize its relationship with various Gulf countries (namely Saudi and the UAE), in the hopes of creating a broader regional alliance against Iran and its allies. The island initiative (especially its proposal for an international/regional force on the island) could facilitate closer relations with Arab states, while creating a false veneer of “regional control” and international responsibility for the Strip.