Tel Aviv: Israel’s powerful transportation and intelligence minister says he is pushing forward with a proposal to build an artificial island with a seaport off the coast of Hamas-ruled Gaza that he believes will alleviate hardship in the blockaded territory and offer residents their first real bridge to the outside world in a decade.
With an independent Palestinian state unlikely anytime soon, Yisrael Katz told The Associated Press that an island for moving goods in and out of Gaza was part of his broader goal of creating regional security and “economic peace” between Israel and its neighbors.
The plan has been derided by critics as impractical but presents a bold platform for Katz, who speaks openly of succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu even as the embattled Prime Minister faces a series of potentially devastating corruption probes.
Katz’s plan calls for an eight-square-kilometer (three-square-mile) island linked to Gaza by a five-kilometer (three-mile) bridge.
The island, estimated to cost 5 billion dollar, would take five years to build and include a seaport, a power station, a desalination plant and perhaps a future airport.
Israel would supervise security but it would otherwise be run by the Palestinians and the international community which he says would mark the completion of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.
“No Palestinian can oppose this, not Abu Mazen and not Hamas, because it gives them an opening to the world,” Katz said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office.
“In an absurd way, we are giving Hamas the keys to the world’s largest prison.” West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also known as Abu Mazen.
The Palestinians have greeted the plan with skepticism, concerned that it is an Israeli power play whose real aim is to cement control over Gaza and further sever the territory from the West Bank. The Palestinians seek both territories, which are divided between rival governments, as parts of a future state.
Israel destroyed Gaza’s airport during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, and it restricts access to Gaza’s small seaport, mostly to local fishermen. Nabil Shaath, Abbas’ adviser for foreign affairs, said the Palestinians have their own plans for developing Gaza’s coastline. “We are capable of taking care of ourselves.
All we need is for Israel to leave us alone and lift the siege on Gaza,” he said. He said Israel has rejected a number of initiatives over the years on security grounds. These include a French-Dutch offer to build a seaport in Gaza and a proposal for the Palestinians to rent a port in Cyprus, where international inspectors could check all cargo before it is shipped to Gaza.
“Katz’s idea is to build a place that will be easy for Israel to control,” he said. “Israel is the main reason for the crisis in Gaza and it is the obstacle in the way of our development.” Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, declined comment.