A New Seaport for Gaza?
Plans to build an artificial island could revive Palestinian exports as well as imports of food, water and health supplies
A port is a place of exchange of goods, people, and ideas. From the beginning of time, when sailors left home in pursuit of commerce and trade, ports became hubs connecting land to sea to land through ships and maritime connection. When we think these days of ports, we think of big harbors — New York, Shanghai, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, — the locus for massive worldwide transport of raw materials and manufactured goods that are the main asset of the export-import contribution to the national, regional, and global economy. Without ports, the world simply would stand still.
As a result of the geopolitical impact of these locations, ports also became financial and cultural centers where the concentration of wealth drove the development of financial institutions and instruments, architecture and urban design, the arts, universities, libraries, governments and diplomacy, and the many social achievements that are the aggregate what we call civilization.
There was also ensuing conflict. To deprive a nation of a port is an act of destruction. To blockade a port as a tactic of war slowly destroys the enemy from within by starvation, disease, political disruption, and social chaos.
In the early millennia of world history, the tiny port of Gaza on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Palestine, played an enormous role in the trading of spice from east to west, the spice road by which herbs, incense, textiles, glass, and food-stuffs were brought by caravan from the Arabian south and trans-shipped to Rome and Constantinople and other European markets. The value was fought over; early on, the Emperor of Pompeii incorporated Gaza as part of the Roman Empire to assure its possession and control over the lucrative connection.
In modern times, the port of Gaza continued as a minor regional center affected by the constant political and economic vicissitudes of that volatile area then conflicted by European governments competing for, acquiring, and controlling certain areas to augment imperial designs and financial return. Things in the Middle East have always been in flux, a continuing area of aspiration and despair, inhibited by a challenging climate and isolation. As modern transportation became global, the Suez Canal created a more efficient means for volume, transport, and the demands of Europe and the New World left the region behind.
Today, Gaza is a poor city in an even poorer territory, caught in the larger Israel-Palestine conflict with Egypt marginalized. As a result, the consequent Israeli blockade of the port of Gaza controls access and limits imports of food, water, health supplies, and more while the residents become more desperate day-by-day with little hope and no political solution in sight.
A March 2016 article in The Economist, however, suggests interest in a project — long planned and discussed — to build an artificial island three miles off the Gaza coast — a piece of “new” land to which no side can lay claim — for a modern port and airport, power and desalination plants that would enable a revival of imports, create employment, stabilize the social unrest in the region, reduce the blockade, and possibly break through the political paralysis in Israel and Palestine that serves no one.
The plan is of course fraught with obstacles. The $5 billion (US) projected cost presumably could be met by investors and donor nations, financing repaid, and operations underwritten by taxes and fees. The engineering is possible and the prospect optimistic, but given the volatility of internal politics, there is no guarantee that the project will ever get beyond a hypothetical solution for an insolvable problem. At best, the economics are marginal.
But what if the investment was calculated to include the savings of avoiding another war in the region? Of no further human loss and social break-down? Of renewed inter-action and cooperation between the nations — a true “peace dividend” of compelling financial, political, and cultural return? What if once more a port might assert its functionality as a place of exchange of goods, people, and ideas and serve again today as a powerful locus of resolution, reconciliation, and peace in a troubled place and a troubled time?
A Seaport for Gaza first appeared as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Host Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org.