On Gaza seaport, Israel navigates narrows between Cairo and Hamas
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Analysis

On Gaza seaport, Israel navigates narrows between Cairo and Hamas

Jerusalem’s mixed message regarding wharf comes as result of Egyptian opposition, despite Palestinian warnings of renewed hostilities if project does not go forward

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas fighters take part in an anti-Israel rally in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, February 26, 2016. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Hamas fighters take part in an anti-Israel rally in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, February 26, 2016. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The coordinator of the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, was quoted at length over the weekend saying that there have been no talks over the establishment of a seaport for Gaza. In comments quoted by the Saudi-linked news site Elaph, Mordechai said that should such negotiations take place in the future, they would be conducted only vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority — not the Hamas rulers of Gaza.

It was a surprising statement, in light of the positive approach among some Israeli ministers, along with members of the IDF’s top brass, to the idea of such a seaport.

And it’s likely that the statement was directed not at Israel or Gaza, but Egypt.

The Times of Israel has learned that Israeli officials are still speaking favorably of the seaport idea, even after Cairo demanded that Jerusalem issue clarifications about its détente talks with Turkey and the option of establishing a port for Gaza in Cyprus or on an artificial island.

It’s no secret that the Egyptian government is vehemently opposed to the establishment of a seaport to serve the Gaza Strip so long as Hamas, which is allied with its enemy the Muslim Brotherhood, remains in power. The Egyptians led the opposition to the removal of the blockade on Gaza in the wake of the war there in the summer of 2014, and Cairo has been consistently opposed to opening the Rafah crossing between the Strip and Egypt’s Sinai to Palestinian travelers.

A Palestinian man walks along the beach next to al-Shatee refugee camp on a rainy day, in Gaza City, on February 22, 2016. AFP/MOHAMMED ABED
A Palestinian man walks along the beach next to al-Shatee refugee camp on a rainy day, in Gaza City, on February 22, 2016. AFP/MOHAMMED ABED

Egypt’s demands are unequivocal: Rafah will be open only once control of the border crossings is handed over to the Palestinian Authority. The Egyptians apply the same principle to the idea of a seaport, which they will only countenance if the PA, not Hamas, governs the passage of goods into the Strip.

Amid reports regarding the option of putting Gaza’s port on an artificial island or in Cyprus, Egypt held talks on the matter with the PA, which is also opposed to such a move.

In the wake of those talks, Cairo signaled to Jerusalem its opposition to establishing a seaport anywhere while Hamas is still in control of the Strip.

Illustrative photo of Palestinian fishermen paddling their small boat a few hundred meters off the beach of Gaza City while casting their nets in search of small fish on August 10, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Roberto Schmidt)
Illustrative photo of Palestinian fishermen paddling their small boat a few hundred meters off the beach of Gaza City while casting their nets in search of small fish on August 10, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Roberto Schmidt)

Mordechai recently met with commanders of the PA security forces, according to Palestinian media. It’s certainly possible that the issue of the seaport came up in that meeting.

Azzam al-Ahmad, one of the leaders of the Palestinian Fatah party, made the PA’s opposition to the establishment of a seaport clear on Friday, asserting that Ramallah could stymie any such initiative.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s leaders have been waxing combative about Gaza’s need for a seaport while at the same time signaling that they have no desire for another round of hostilities with Israel.

“The Strip needs and wants a seaport, and that issue has also been conveyed to the Turks – their siege on Gaza will not be lifted without the establishment of a seaport,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya said Friday.

Hamas fighters look at a mockup of an Israeli bus on fire during a rally on February 26, 2016 in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas fighters look at a mockup of an Israeli bus on fire during a rally on February 26, 2016, in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Another of the group’s top officials told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat last week that there has been significant progress in talks between Turkey and Israel, especially regarding the option of erecting a seaport.

Analysts in Gaza told The Times of Israel that they are under the impression Hamas has been trying to inspire hope for real change among the residents of the impoverished enclave.

However, they warned, if Hamas fails to deliver on its promises, pressure will mount on it to take action, even if that means more war.

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