Egypt’s relationship with the Gaza Strip is governed by security apprehension on the one hand and fraternal Arab sympathy on the other. This has prevented any serious search for possible integration and cooperation opportunities in the economic and development fields between Palestine and Egypt.
Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian Gaza Strip could shift from a problematic issue in terms of the Egyptian-Palestinian relationship and regional stability, to a source of revival, development and stability between Palestine and Egypt. However, Palestinian division and the Israeli blockade continue to be obstacles that prevent the exploitation of potential opportunities.
A seaport, an airport and agriculture
The Gaza Strip covers an area of 365 square kilometers, and is home to 1.5 million Palestinians; an average of 4,100 people per square kilometer. The population of the Gaza Strip is expected to reach 2.1 million in the next eight years.
Due to the small area of the Gaza Strip, it is not necessary to construct a port and airport of its own. It may be feasible to rent land in the Sinai area adjacent to the Strip, which could be fully allocated to the movement of people and goods to and from Palestine. The West Bank and East Jerusalem, which along with the Gaza Strip constitute a single geographical and political unit, need such air and sea terminals to export their products and import necessities, as well as for the movement of Palestinian civilians to Egypt and across the world. The allocation of an airport and seaport within the Egyptian border for Palestinian use would allow Gaza to utilize its very limited area for tourism and population growth.
Many countries lease la rge tracts of land that belong to other countries for decades in order to compensate for a shortage of arable land. Germany, for example, rents thousands of agricultural acres in Brazil to grow corn needed to generate energy. Also, Egypt is seeking to rent thousands of acres of land from Sudan to cultivate wheat and other grains in order to compensate for the limited agricultural land allocated to such plantations in Egypt.
Egypt and Palestine can discuss the possibility of leasing large tracts of land in the Sinai Peninsula. With an area of 60,000 square kilometers — three times the size of historical Palestine — it has a low population density, being only inhabited by half a million Egyptians. The Egyptian and Palestinian governments could oversee the leasing process to ensure proper implementation and security guarantees to prevent illegal settlement. Such projects would help the Egyptian government to reconstruct the Sinai and stimulate economic growth and construction, thus reducing the risk that unwanted international groups will settle there. This would also allow Egypt to take advantage of the vast experience of Palestinian farmers in modern farming methods, which is on a par with that of Israel.
The building and construction sector
Palestine in general, and the Gaza Strip in particular, is suffering from a scarcity of natural resources — such as cement, gravel and other materials — needed for construction, while the Sinai Peninsula is rich with such resources. The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, as a result of which construction ceased in the Strip.
According to a United Nations report titled "Gaza 2020," there is a need for 70,000 residential units and hundreds of schools, and to rehabilitate infrastructure millions of tons of raw materials are required. The restoration of Salah al-Din Street and the sea [port] in the Gaza Strip — which are among the projects included under the Qatari national grant — require 2 million tons of materials. The Palestinian market can become important for cement factories in the Sinai. Also, the mountains of the Sinai are rich in granite, other rocks and natural construction materials, which are not available in Palestine.
The energy sector
The Gaza Strip relies on three sources of electricity: a power station that pumps about 80 MW, the Israeli Electricity Company which feeds the electricity grid with about 120 MW and the Egyptian electricity grid that supplies about 23 MW. The Gaza Strip’s current need [for electricity] is about 350 MW. Thus, there are daily eight-hour power outages. If the Israeli blockade is lifted, the economy is reactivated, and the construction of tens of thousands of needed housing units and hundreds of schools is resumed the Gaza Strip will need more than 600 MW of electricity. The electrical grid that runs through eight Arab countries — including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon — might include Palestine’s Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It is noteworthy that the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip consume over $600 million in electricity a year, which is paid to Israel in exchange for fuel and electricity.
Gas fields in the Gaza sea
In 2000, two gas fields were discovered in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza, with reserves of about 31 billion cubic meters and an estimated market value of $7 billion. Political disagreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel as well as Palestinian internal divisions have prevented the sale of Palestinian gas. British Gas (BG) and Consolidated Contractors Company were granted an exclusive agreement to explore and market [Palestinian gas]. BG has also won an agreement to explore and market Egyptian gas in the Sinai.
The Egyptian gas pumping station currently lies across Al-Arish in the direction of Jordan, and in the direction of Israel prior to the cancellation of the contract. Therefore, BG, which owns the right of exploration of Egyptian and Palestinian gas, can build an export terminal for [both Palestinian and Egyptian] gas from the port of Al-Arish, whether by sea toward Europe and Asia or by land toward Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Palestine is the only crossing [accessible to] hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents who do not have the right to cross to Israel, Jordan and to the outside world. Following the Egyptian revolution, the Rafah crossing currently serves around 2,000 people a day in both directions. According to the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, the number of travelers through the Rafah crossing in both directions has increased from 60,000 in 2009 to 160,000 in 2010, 265,000 in 2011 and 400,000 in 2012. The number of travelers could multiply if work at the Rafah crossing, and air transport between Al-Arish and Egyptian and Arab cities in the region becomes organized.
Egypt can be the appropriate passageway for Arab and Islamic tourism to Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the 1948 Palestinians. Tourism in the Sinai Peninsula represents a golden opportunity for tens of thousands of Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem due to visitor appeal and modest costs. Palestinian tourism can be organized in the Sinai whereby risks are avoided and benefits achieved via tourist agreements between the Egyptian and Palestinian governments.
Taking advantage of these opportunities will necessitate Palestinian reconciliation and the unification of the Palestinian political system.
The state of tension is only a layer of ash concealing golden opportunities for investment and integration between the two peoples. This would allow the situation to transform from a cause of tension and instability to a source of development and prosperity.
Omar Shaban is the founder and director of Palthink for Strategic Studies. An independent researcher and analyst specializing in Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict, he writes about developments in Palestine and the Arab world.