The Gaza Strip poses a great challenge to Israel – in particular its fragile humanitarian situation, which has been an item on the Israeli decision-making table for a long time, especially since Hamas took over in 2007.
As the atmosphere on the Gaza border has been heating up in recent weeks, the humanitarian crisis requires an urgent response. This is a clear Israeli interest, since the situation in Gaza encourages violence that affects life in Israel proper, leads to international criticism of Israel and stands in contrast to Jewish and human values.
There are several plans that outline ways to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, including the construction of a port in the El Arish area of Egypt, the construction of infrastructure facilities on an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, the development of the gas field opposite the Gaza Strip in favor of vital electricity generation and desalination projects, and the construction of a marine port in Cyprus.
The Cyprus option was discussed again recently at the initiative of Defense Minister Lieberman during the tripartite meeting between the defense ministers of Israel, Greece and Cyprus on June 22 in Nicosia. The proposed outline includes the construction of a seaport in Cyprus (or, in effect, the allocation of a number of docks in an existing port), which will serve as a conduit for the transfer of aid to the Gaza Strip under Israeli security supervision. The idea is not new, and the Cypriot response is generally cautious, although mostly positive. In the past, they tried to mobilize the EU in order to provide a sponsorship (mainly political) for the initiative and presumably this is what they will try to do now.
Nicosia, on one hand, attaches great importance to the close relationship with Israel, and hence the need for serious consideration of the Israeli request, which puts Cyprus in a power position as a significant regional player. On the other hand, the Cypriots understand that the Palestinian Authority is not enthusiastic about the idea, as generally they are fearful, and rightly so, to meddle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in view of the split between Hamas and Palestinian Authority.
In Cyprus, as well as in the EU, there is great understanding of Israel’s security concerns and presumably of Israel’s future demand for tight and efficient control of the goods to be transferred from a Cypriot port to the Gaza Strip. The idea of the Cyprus port, which can be part of a successful Israeli policy in the eastern Mediterranean, has several requirements: 1) serious Israeli-Cypriot (and perhaps Greek) dialogue; 2) discussion and arrangement with Egypt; 3) an international political umbrella with the participation of the EU, the US, and possibly relevant Arab states (e.g., Saudi Arabia); 4) an internal Israeli campaign to mobilize public support for such a move, including the support of the defense administration, which frequently warns against a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
The construction of a seaport for the Gaza Strip in Cyprus should be dissociated from the broader political process with the Palestinians; currently negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority do not seem feasible, therefore it should not be a precondition for advancing the initiative. However, there is a need to coordinate it with the Palestinian Authority, in order to neutralize any objection for such a move that could be seen as one that strengthens Hamas. There will also be a need for indirect coordination with Hamas (through the Egyptians) in order to ensure that conditions for a successful deal are in place.
The Israeli interest is to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip is not in sight, and therefore the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip is still the lesser of two evils in Israel’s view and certainly preferable to the takeover of a more radical Islamist groups.
Furthermore, Israel must initiate and even participate (including through a significant economic contribution) in such an extensive and ambitious effort to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip. A sort of “Marshall Plan” is needed for the Gaza Strip, one that will mobilize the Arab states and the international community to fundamentally change the situation in the Gaza Strip. Such a move would benefit everyone, including Israel, both politically and publicly. The latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip and the almost daily incidents illustrate the explosive potential of Israel-Hamas relations. Presumably, the current cease-fire will not last. The Cypriot initiative, however specific, can trigger a process that will help neutralize what appears to be an inevitable confrontation. Israel must seriously advance this initiative – the sooner the better.
Amb. (ret.) Michael Harari is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute. He held senior positions at the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division and Center for Policy Research.