Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he’s approved a plan to open a seaport in Cyprus to benefit the Gaza Strip, but Hamas and Palestinian leaders are less than pleased about it.
Liberman said June 26 that he discussed the idea with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades during a June 21 visit to Cyprus. The plan is to set up a project development team within three weeks and to complete the port within three months.
However, the proposal is contingent on Hamas releasing two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers. The dock would also allow Israel to monitor Hamas and prevent it from using this opportunity to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
The Israeli proposal comes as living conditions in the Gaza Strip deteriorate, with unprecedented high unemployment rates, malnutrition and a woefully low standard of living. This is as the Great Return March protests, which began March 30, continue along the border with Israel. There are growing fears among Palestinians and Israelis alike of a possible military faceoff between Hamas and Israel over the worsening humanitarian crisis.
Maher Tabbaa, the public relations director for the Gaza Strip Chamber of Commerce, told Al-Monitor, “The Cyprus seaport that we hope to establish will spare Palestinians so many high expenses of imported Palestinian goods arriving in Israeli ports. Israel takes a lot of time to screen the arriving goods to check if they comply with the right specifications. Israel’s firm security control at the Kerem Shalom crossing has only tightened the noose around the Palestinians rather than alleviating pressure on their ailing economy.”
He added, “So far, we don't know whether the port will be supervised by Palestinians, the United Nations or other international parties."
Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou said June 26, “There will be contacts between the government and all interested parties in the region and, possibly, a decision will be taken. At the moment no decision has been taken. The request is being examined, it hasn't been rejected."
But Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said June 26 that the Israeli plan to establish a seaport without a comprehensive political solution is a step toward shared living and coexistence with Israelis, which compromises Palestinians' right to an independent state.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Mardawi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “We are for an effort to break the blockade on Gaza that would allow the free movement of individuals and goods without any Israeli security control. The Cyprus seaport must be under Palestinian management.”
He also said Hamas won't participate in any deal that doesn't include the release of dozens of its members being held prisoner.
“Our official stance is clear," said Mardawi. "We will not [abandon our people] in Israeli prisons, [even] for any proposals to alleviate the escalating human suffering in Gaza, including said Cyprus seaport. We have already conveyed our position to the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, and Qatari Ambassador to Palestine Mohammed al-Emadi. They relayed the message to Israel."
A Cyprus seaport has been proposed before. Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper reported June 27 that Egypt has been preparing a deal between Israel and Hamas, including a sea passage from Cyprus to Gaza under international security supervision.
Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth quoted on June 17 an undisclosed Israeli naval general as saying that a plan had been submitted to the Israeli government to transfer goods from Cyprus to Gaza via the port of Ashdod. According to the proposal, the goods would be transported by sea from Cyprus to Ashdod, where they would be screened for security reasons and then moved by land to the Erez crossing, north of Gaza.
Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz had said May 15 that the Cyprus seaport idea is an opportunity to open a door to the Gaza Strip without going through Israel. He added that Israel will preserve its security by monitoring any arriving goods and this would open Gaza to the outside world. The seaport will take a few months to be set up and can be closed immediately if someone misuses it, according to Steinitz.
Meanwhile, a former Palestinian ambassador to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, who did not want to be named, told Al-Monitor, “Cyprus told us that it will only discuss the seaport working plan with the Palestinian Authority [PA]. We have close relations with Cyprus, which won't bypass the PA with any issue regarding Gaza. We aren't against any effort to alleviate the suffering of the enclave, but setting up the Cyprus seaport means separating Gaza from the West Bank. The Cypriots won't take part in making this separation happen. According to our information, this idea was proposed by Liberman alone and not the entire Israeli government.”
Israel, however, also maintains strong relations with Cyprus. Liberman visited the island June 21, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit May 8. This suggests that Cyprus is likely to support the proposal, given its mutual interests with Israel, not to mention Israel’s military, technological and economic assistance to Cyprus.
At the same time, Cyprus, a member of the EU, is committed to its decisions and therefore can't reach an understanding with Israel about Gaza without reverting to the EU. And European-Israeli relations aren't at their best at the moment, given the growing European popular protests against Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank, its policies against Palestinians and the spread of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Europe calling for boycotting Israeli products.
Saleh al-Naami, an Israeli affairs expert at Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, told Al-Monitor, “With this proposal, Israel seeks to directly address Gazans behind the back of Hamas, which is an attempt to pressure the Islamic movement to agree to ease the siege in exchange for the release of the Israeli prisoners. This suggests that Israel is using systematic leaks aimed at directing the Gazan public’s pressure on the movement."
The coming days are likely to bring more details about the Palestinian-Israeli debate over the Cyprus seaport and questions about security control and the roles of Hamas and the PA. It's also still unclear whether people, and not just goods, would be able to move through the Cypriot port as well. This will likely bring Israel and Palestine, along with regional and international parties, to the negotiating table for long, difficult debates.