JERUSALEM (Reuters) - At first glance the video looks like a promotion for a luxury offshore development, a Dubai Palm-style project on the Mediterranean. Then it becomes clear it’s about Gaza and the future of the impoverished and fenced-in Palestinian enclave.
Israel’s intelligence and transport minister has long pushed the idea of an artificial island off the coast of the Gaza Strip, with plans for a port, cargo terminal and even an airport to boost the territory’s economy and connect it to the world.
But now the minister, Israel Katz, has released a slick, high-production video setting out his proposal in more detail, complete with a dramatic, English-speaking narration, colorful graphics and stirring music. [ Video here: here ]
“The artificial island initiative is aimed at providing an answer to a reality that is bad for the Palestinians and not good for Israel,” says the narrator, acknowledging that the aim is in part to change the view that Israel is to blame for the deteriorating circumstances of Gaza’s two million people.
The Islamist militant group Hamas has controlled Gaza for the past decade, during which time Israel and neighboring Egypt have maintained a tight blockade, restricting the flow of goods and people in and out, in part to pressure Hamas.
While Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005, it still limits Gaza’s access to the sea and controls its airspace.
“Today, Israel continues to be perceived as being responsible for the Gaza Strip and is to a large extent the only lifeline to it, even though it withdrew from the strip over a decade ago,” says the narrator.
To challenge that perception, and tackle the broader humanitarian and economic problems that beset Gaza - it is currently receiving less than three hours of electricity a day and has unemployment exceeding 40 percent - Katz’s plan calls for a $5 billion investment over five years.
It envisages an international consortium building the 1,300-acre island (525 hectares) some three miles offshore, connecting it to the mainland via a causeway, which would have a bridge in the middle that could be raised, cutting off access.
Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since it seized control of Gaza from the rival Palestinian movement Fatah, has long called for a sea port and wants the airport in Gaza, destroyed by Israel in 2001, rebuilt.
It has not commented directly on Katz’s island plan, but Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group, said: “Building a sea port for Gaza is a right of its people to alleviate their suffering and end the blockade.”
The projected island would hold vast infrastructure, including cargo and passenger ports, a marina, gas and electricity terminals, a desalination plant and space for an airport in the future.
While Israel would retain control of security in the sea around the island, and would carry out inspections at the port, an international policing force would be responsible for security on the island and at checkpoints on the bridge.
“In addition to its humanitarian and economic importance, and distinct security advantages, the artificial island initiative will strengthen the cooperation and relations between Israel and the countries in the region,” says the video.
While at one level the idea sounds pie-in-the-sky, Katz has presented it internationally and raised it consistently for discussion. He showed his video to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet this month, where it met with widespread approval, according to Katz’s spokesman.
But Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has responsibility for Gaza policy, remains unconvinced and has not endorsed the proposal. He has said Gaza does not deserve any development project as long as Hamas runs the territory.
Katz’s hope is that if the Israeli government does get fully behind it, it can then be presented to international partners as a potential, if ambitious, project to finance.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mugrabi in Gaza; editing by Mark Heinrich