TEL AVIV — An Israeli minister who holds portfolios for intelligence and transportation said at a conference Tuesday that some in the government are becoming more receptive to allowing a seaport to be built off the shores of Gaza.
Yisrael Katz of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party said the offshore seaport — an envisioned 3-square-mile artificial island connected to Gaza by a 5 kilometer bridge — should be brought up soon for Cabinet discussion.
"I hope that we'll take a decision in the government in the appropriate forum to advance this," Katz told participants at an international conference on intelligence and special forces here. "I see that there is a wider understanding and people are becoming more receptive to this idea, which will create positive conditions for the two million people of Gaza without jeopardizing Israel's security."
In his July 19 address, Katz estimated costs of the project at some $5 billion — funds that would come from interested countries in the region and private initiatives.
"Funding is a small problem. Many countries are interested … and there are private initiatives for infrastructure initiatives," he said.
He specifically mentioned Turkey, with whom Israel recently concluded a reconciliation agreement after six years of virtual estrangement.
"The Turks said they want to build a desalination plant and a power plant on the shores of Gaza. I say why spoil the beach? You can do it much more efficiently offshore," Katz said.
According to Katz, Israel must do what it can, within security constraints and in consideration of its peace partner in Egypt, to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
"The whole subject of Gaza carries with it enough obstacles, whether historical, ideological or securitywise. That's why in this place, it is possible to support this. Otherwise I wouldn't be favoring this option," he said.
"If Egypt was willing to allow citizens of Gaza to go by way of its seaports and its airports, we wouldn't need this island. But Egypt is completely not willing to do this, due to very legitimate reasons," he added. "And if the security establishment here would say we couldn't secure this island, this option wouldn't be relevant. But this is not the case."
Under Katz's plan, the offshore port would require three security zones and inspection points, two of them controlled by Israel and the third — the 5 kilometer bridge — to be secured through an international mechanism.
"Obviously this would require interagency coordination and international cooperation," Katz said.
Katz did not address Palestinian receptivity to such a plan or specifics on how the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA) would manage to secure cooperation with its bitter rival Hamas, which administers the Gaza Strip.
The idea for a maritime port in Gaza has been bandied about for years in the context of creating conditions necessary for a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. However, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian sides ever made progress to the point of elevating the idea to the concrete planning stages.
In a report released earlier this summer by Commanders for Israel's Security (CIS), a group of more than 200 retired Israeli generals flagged the long-term project as one that could significantly contribute to a more favorable environment, regardless of whether serious negotiations between the parties could be resumed.
Their "Security First" plan prescribes Israel's unilateral support for a seaport for its own national interests, even in the absence of a serious peace partner on the other side. Their only caveat was that PA — not Hamas — would have to share responsibility with Israel for safeguarding and operating the facility.
"This project is of great symbolic import to all Palestinians. In exchange for such an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, Hamas will have to accept Israel's security demands — first and foremost strict security inspections of all goods and individuals entering Gaza, but also PA control — or risk being blamed for blocking the project," CIS wrote.
It added: "Authorizing the relevant international and local agencies — including the PA — to begin planning the facility will pay immediate dividends in the international community's attitude towards Israel's policy on Gaza."
Rear Adm. Yossi Ashkenazi, head of the Israeli Navy's Materiel Command, said the service is equipped to secure the waters around the offshore island as it does today off the Gazan coast. He noted, however, that the decision would be driven by political considerations rather than operational or technical grounds.
"The question of the port in Gaza, I know it well. I dealt with it. From the point of engineering, there is no problem to build a sea passage to the Gaza Strip. But this is a political issue. It is not connected to the Navy," Ashkenazi said.
When asked if the idea was likely to be endorsed by the government, a senior security advisor to Netanyahu responded in the negative.
"There are pros and cons, and indeed there will be discussion on this soon. Our position is what happens to that $5 billion investment and our relations with all the interested parties when the next war comes around in Gaza and we need to bomb the place?"