When Benjamin Netanyahu waived anti-monopoly laws to allow the development of large offshore gas reserves last week, the prime minister dismissed criticism by describing his action as imperative for Israel’s “national security.”
Fifteen years ago, the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat made a similar declaration as he stood aboard a fishing vessel in the Mediterranean, while British Gas confirmed the presence of natural gas less than 20 nautical miles off the coast of the Gaza Strip, within the occupied territory’s maritime zone.
“It’s a gift from God to us, to our people, to our children,” Arafat said. “This will provide a solid foundation for our economy, for establishing an independent state with holy Jerusalem as its capital.”
But fifteen years later the discovery of many rich gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean has reaped no benefits for Palestinians – and is likely the motive for Israel’s devastating maritime blockade on Gaza.
“Israel has closed off access to Palestine’s territorial waters to protect Israeli gas platforms and export pipelines,” according to “Annexing Energy,” a new report from the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq.
At the same time, Israel has forcibly blocked Palestinians from developing gas fields in Gaza’s waters.
“Israel’s unlawful appropriation, exploitation and prevented development of oil and gas resources constitute plunder and further breach Palestine’s right to self-determination,” Al-Haq states.
It also points out that Israel is not acting alone: “By their actions, international corporations and states, including EU members, concluding pipeline agreements to export gas from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields … will effectively support and profit from Israel’s continued illegal closure of Palestinian maritime waters.”
In 2000, around the same time that the Gaza gas fields were found, Israel discovered Mari-B, a gas field located at the maritime border with Gaza.
Since then, Israel has accelerated the militarization of Gaza’s waters, ostensibly to protect its own valuable resources – while sabotaging any possibility that Palestinians can access theirs.
Israel’s violent restriction of Gaza’s maritime zone to 3 to 6 nautical miles beyond the coast began in 2000, the report states, though it was not officially established until January 2009.
In August 2008, Al-Haq notes, fishing restrictions were placed on Palestinians and in December of that year Israel invaded the tiny strip of land in what it dubbed Operation Cast Lead.
When Israel ended the assault that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, it kept its maritime blockade on Gaza in place.
Militarizing Gaza’s waters
In 2014 the, Israeli navy told an Israeli business newspaper that all Palestinian fishing boats that sail within seven miles of drilling platforms will be “intercepted.”
Today, not a week goes by that Palestinian fishermen are not fired on by Israeli forces while they attempt to work the waters off Gaza.
So while Israel prepares to tap the Leviathan gas field, the largest field at the center of the current energy debate, it is arming its already lethal navy with additional weaponry.
In May, Israel signed a $470 million contract with Germany for four armed patrol vessels to guard its offshore gas rigs.
The same month, it signed a defense cooperation agreement with Greece’s left-wing pro-Israel government, motivated in part by concerns over “maritime security” in the Mediterranean gas fields.
And earlier this month, the Israeli army announced it was installing Iron Dome missile interceptors on warships to protect its drilling platforms.
Meanwhile Al-Haq says that Israel’s underwater pipeline, which transports gas between Israel and Egypt, lies “at the heart” of Israel’s illegal naval blockade of Gaza.
Built in 2005, the El-Arish pipeline cuts directly through Gaza’s waters. Beginning in February 2008, Egypt used the pipeline to pump gas to Israel, supplying 40 percent of Israel’s gas at a fraction of the market rate.
Israel has proceeded to illegally enforce buffer zones around the pipeline and its Mari-B gas field, preventing Palestinian fishermen from entering their own waters.
Al-Haq says that this exclusion zone extending deep inside Palestinian waters breaches international law, which allows countries to maintain a maximum 500-meter “security zone” outside their territorial waters.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s gas fields remain untapped. British Gas, which had signed a 25-year contract with the Palestinian Authority, attempted to secure a deal with Israel to export Palestinian gas.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli government of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had agreed secretly that the Palestinian share of revenues would be funneled through an offshore account inaccessible to the official PA government which was led by Hamas after it won the 2006 legislative elections.
Ultimately, however, Israel blocked the export of any Palestinian gas.
Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been entirely dependent on Israel for their energy, a power dynamic which has proved extremely lucrative for Israel.
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority’s energy bill is the biggest contributor to its trade deficit with Israel.
On the same day that Netanyahu set the development of the gas fields in motion, Israel and Turkey took more steps toward normalizing their ties. According to Israeli officials and reports in Turkish media, Turkey seeks to buy Israeli gas for its own use and could become the main hub for distributing it to Europe.
Israel is using the gas fields as an opportunity to strengthen ties with Egypt too, as well as with European governments anxious to reduce their dependency on Russian gas.
No wonder pro-Israel commentators are celebrating the happy “convergence of interests” arising from Israel’s offshore fossil fuel windfall.
Meanwhile, the discovery of gas in Gaza’s waters has only given Israel more pretexts and opportunities, with international complicity, to keep Palestinians as prisoners on their own land.