Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that Israel would work to develop a natural gas field off the coast of the Gaza Strip, a proposal that has been repeatedly floated for decades.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office declared that as part of a “framework of existing efforts” between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, the government is moving forward with developing the “Gaza Marine gas field off the coast of Gaza.”
The move is seen as an olive branch to the Palestinians and, if carried out, is expected to bring in billions of shekels to the PA. The PMO said it was pursuing the plan with an emphasis “on Palestinian economic development and maintaining security stability in the region.”
The statement said that the project is “subject to coordination between the security services and direct dialogue with Egypt, in coordination with the PA.”
The announcement came after Israel and the PA held a series of security summits in recent months, first in Aqaba, Jordan, and then in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
Last month, just days before a five-day flareup of violence with Gaza, local news outlets reported the existence of talks led by National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian — the military’s liaison to the Palestinians — aimed at developing the gas field.
Following the meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh in March, which focused largely on de-escalating tensions, Israeli and PA officials said they had agreed to work toward improving the economic conditions of the Palestinian people as well as the financial situation of the cash-strapped PA, which would benefit from the development of the Marine 1 and 2 fields located some 30 kilometers (19 miles) off Gaza.
The sides have held sporadic negotiations on the matter over the years but failed to reach an agreement due to numerous hurdles. Along with Israeli objections and other disputes, the PA has exercised no control over Gaza since being ousted from there in 2007 by the Hamas terror organization, which now controls the coastal enclave.
In an interview with Channel 13 last month, Hanegbi acknowledged he was “involved” in the matter, but insisted “there will be nothing concerning infrastructure development” in Gaza until the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin are returned. Hamas also currently holds two living Israelis — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.
“We can talk and make plans so they understand the cost of the loss. It’s not only the matter of gas; there is infrastructure that the whole world is ready to bolster in Gaza. We won’t allow this until the boys are returned,” he said.
Negotiations and proposals on developing a gas field off the coast of Gaza have been ebbing and flowing for more than 20 years, with efforts repeatedly failing to progress.
The PA commissioned energy firm British Gas to conduct gas exploration in the area in 1999. A year later, British Gas found Marine 1 about 30 kilometers (19 miles) out to sea, and later the smaller Marine 2, but eventually withdrew from the contract.
The project was handed over to energy giant Shell in 2016, only for it to pull out too two years later over Israeli objections and other disputes. Since then, the Palestinians have been looking for investors in the $1.1 billion project to extract the estimated 28 billion cubic meters (989 billion cubic feet) of natural gas.
AFP contributed to this report.