Biden's Gaza aid port plan: How did we get here and where might it lead?

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the former location of the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachussets, on July 20, 2022. Biden warned that climate change represents a "clear and
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This essay was published first by the Middle East Institute on March 8, 2024.


Since October 7, humanitarian aid has been entering the Gaza Strip via land and air. Following US President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on March 7, aid is also likely to enter via the sea.


"I am directing the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters," said Biden, emphasizing that "the temporary pier would enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day."


Shipments to Gaza are set to arrive at the new pier via a maritime corridor from Larnaca, Cyprus, where goods will undergo security inspections, based on a proposal put forward by the Republic of Cyprus in November 2023, a month after the outbreak of the war.


The Biden idea, while presented as an ad-hoc problem-solving step, once again shines a spotlight on a major issue that has cropped up throughout the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since its early days in the 1990s: the need for a seaport in Gaza to advance the economic viability of a future Palestinian state.


Successful implementation of the American "temporary pier" initiative will pave the way for more detailed and longer-term policy planning on maritime solutions for the Gaza Strip in the post-war regional reality.


A history of attempts to establish a Gaza seaport

Over the years, the Palestinians have presented the need for a Gaza seaport as a key symbol of national independence and a critical engine for economic development. The idea initially appeared in a non-binding and abstract manner in the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Accords included an agreement to establish an "Israeli-Palestinian Continuing Committee for Economic Cooperation" that would also develop a program to “define guidelines for the establishment of a Gaza Sea Port Area."


Throughout the 1990s, visions for peace became broad and ambitious. According to former Palestinian negotiators, the 1995 regional economic summit in Amman envisaged a mega seaport, linking four seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean: Ashdod (Israel), Al-Arish (Egypt), Gaza (under a future Palestinian state), and Aqaba (Jordan).


But only in 1999, after Ehud Barak replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister, that additional progress was made regarding a Gaza seaport. The Israeli-Palestinian Sharm Al-Sheikh Memorandum included an agreement on several principles that would allow it "to facilitate and enable the construction works of the Gaza Sea Port."


Subsequently, in 2000, the Palestinian Authority (PA) began to build a small port on the coast of Gaza with European funding, but it was destroyed by Israel a few months later, after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, just three months after its construction. This prompted a Dutch-French consortium that had intended to build a port in Gaza to scrap its plans, citing security problems in the area.


When Israeli-Palestinian conditions improved following the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and under the new leadership of Mahmoud Abbas as acting Palestinian president, the seaport idea once again gained traction.


The 2005 Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Movement and Access stated, "Construction of a seaport can commence." Israel was set to "assure donors that it will not interfere with the operation of the port," and a US-led tripartite committee was set up to develop security arrangements that would enable the port's opening.


As with the Second Intifada outbreak, geopolitical developments again interfered, preventing the project’s implementation. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and violently took over the Gaza Strip from the PA in 2007, the seaport was put on hold.


Since then, the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the reluctance to give Hamas an additional symbol of sovereignty pushed the seaport idea off the regional and international agenda.


Ideas on the issue were floated during the 2010s by Israeli ministers in a recurring attempt to alter the reality in Gaza, both in an effort to relieve Israel of the responsibility of serving as a transit point for goods into the Strip and as a bargaining chip after various rounds of Israel-Hamas escalation.


In 2011, then-Minister of Transport Israel Katz advocated building an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, including a port. Katz has stuck with this idea ever since. He pitched it again in 2016 and 2017 and did so once more in January 2024 in a meeting with EU foreign ministers, just after he assumed the role of foreign minister.


The island option competed with another idea of building a dock for the Gaza Strip in Cyprus. Israel initially suggested this in 2016, and in 2018, it was advanced by then-Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman. However, despite support from some experts, this idea too failed to materialize as a result of Cypriot reluctance to get involved in Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israel’s refusal to give Hamas a symbol of sovereignty.


In the absence of a seaport in Gaza, goods going in and out of the coastal strip were mostly transferred via Israel's Ashdod port and the Karam Abu Salem crossing between Israel and Gaza, where they would undergo security inspections.


Future options for a seaport serving the Gaza Strip

After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Israel shut its border crossings with the Gaza Strip despite being pressed by its Western allies to keep the Ashdod-Karam Abu Salem-Gaza route open. Humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip mostly entered via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, with increased quantities being airdropped into the Strip, including by the US.


Understanding that these methods of delivering aid are falling far short of addressing the growing humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip, and prior to Biden's State of the Union address, the US explored maritime solutions, looking into various locations where a pier could be set up.


Israeli officials said that while they knew the US was seeking to identify an optimal location for a pier, they "were not informed of the findings or of the president's intention to announce the move." Nevertheless, the fact that this initiative involves two major allies of Israel — the US and Cyprus — has put Israel at relative ease. Following Biden's address, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that "Israel welcomes the inauguration of the maritime corridor from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip."


However, the Biden initiative for a pier in Gaza is defined as temporary. While temporary solutions often tend to last longer than anticipated, the current US proposal is not likely to be a long-term solution to Palestinian needs. It does, however, provide an opportunity to revisit existing plans and alternatives for a Gaza seaport, adapt them to changing geopolitical realities, and chart out a path forward.


A group of Israeli and American port and shipping experts, led by Asaf Ashar, conducted a study between 2016 and 2018 in which they identified and assessed eight plans for a seaport to serve the Gaza Strip. These included options inside Israel, in the Gaza Strip (also including a corridor from Cyprus), and in Egypt.


They concluded it would be difficult to "satisfy all the opposing requirements and concerns of the Palestinians (sovereignty) and Israelis/Egyptians (security)," with Ashar and his colleague Joel Singer eventually advocating for a port on the southern part of the Egypt-Gaza border, coupled with an Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian "tri-state free trade zone."


Another idea was put forth by a group of Mediterranean experts consisting of Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Cypriot policy analysts and retired ambassadors. The group, convened by Diplomeds, worked throughout 2022 and 2023 to identify a zone of possible agreement between all relevant actors for an additional seaport that can serve Gaza beyond the Ashdod port.


The group concluded that the Al-Arish port in Sinai would be the most feasible option until an independent seaport in Gaza could be established. The Al-Arish seaport is already undergoing a major expansion as part of an Egyptian effort to position it as a regional shipping hub.


Utilizing the Al-Arish port will not require changes in the security architecture, as goods could still be inspected by Israel at the Karam Abu Salem crossing before entering the Gaza Strip. It will reduce Palestinian dependence on an Israeli port, thus serving political interests, and will enable trade between the Gaza Strip and Arab and Muslim countries that do not recognize Israel and do not want to trade via Ashdod.


The Al-Arish port could also be used to deliver necessary equipment to the Gaza Marine natural gas field, should an arrangement for its development be reached. Progress on this front was made between Egypt, Israel, and the PA prior to October 7, and the effort could continue as a win-win component of the post-war reality.


Eventually, once an independent Palestinian port is set up in the Gaza Strip, within the context of agreed-upon steps toward a two-state solution, it could be linked to the other major regional ports — in Al-Arish, Ashdod, Aqaba, and perhaps also those in the Gulf — as envisioned back in the 1990s.


That is still a long way off, but Biden's statement about the establishment of a "temporary pier" in Gaza provides some cause for optimism that once the dust settles, the war ends, and domestic political transitions take place in both Israel and the PA, concepts of peace, regional cooperation, intra-regional connectivity, and mutual economic benefit may once again take center stage. As the Gaza seaport issue highlights, plans for how to do so are often already in place.

 اضافة اعلان
Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Jordan News' point of view.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, President of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds - The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.


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