Palestinians to bypass Israel with seaport of their own

The Sept. 4 'Wye II' accord allows for seaport construction to restartby Oct. 1.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TVs, ovens, refrigerators, washing machines - Awny Faris & Sons has it all. As one of the biggest wholesalers in the teeming Gaza Strip, the family has an ever-growing population to supply with household appliances.

But business is dropping. The $6 to $8 million they earned annually a few years ago fell to $5 million last year and will be around $3 million this year. Palestinian disposable income is shrinking, while the cost of importing goods remains sky high. A buyer interested in purchasing one of the new washers in the corner, company manager Mohammed Faris points out, must pay the 100 percent tax on imports of such machines through Israel - making a $500 appliance cost well over $1,000.

These and many other problems could soon be alleviated with the opening of the first functioning seaport in Gaza since Roman times.

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The "Wye II" accord sealed on Sept. 4 allows for construction of the port to restart by Oct. 1 and is scheduled to be operational in 18 months. The construction of the port - a $100 million project primarily funded and designed by Holland and France - will generate employment and spur local industry to the tune of 4,000 jobs, Palestinian officials say.

But all that is contingent on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators coming to an agreement over a protocol for operating the port.

So for now, Mr. Faris must sometimes wait weeks while his incoming merchandise is put through a security check at the closest Israeli port in Ashqelon, and pay for storage of the goods until they are released. Exporters tell similar tales of trying to ship their products out to the world at large. Perishables like flowers and produce - potentially the Palestinians' strongest domestic exports - sometimes shrivel while waiting to be cleared.

For Israelis, the port is primarily seen as a security risk. Their worse-case scenario is that it would be exploited to smuggle weapons and ammunition into the Palestinian Authority for use against Israel - or even be used to receive armies of Arab nations still at war with Israel.

But for the Palestinians the port is simply a route for doing business with the world - and they want a more direct link. Palestinians complain that all travelers passing through their new airport in the Gaza Strip are actually checked by Israelis standing in screened-in rooms, and they don't want to forever be subject to Israeli gatekeepers.

"The seaport is a sign of sovereignty and independence," Faris says. "But ... will things be able to move through there freely, or will they be delayed and damaged the way they have been coming through Israeli ports?"

Israeli officials say their bottom line is that they must have some kind of way to monitor what comes in to the port. Otherwise, says government spokesman Moshe Fogel, infiltrators and weaponry will have an easy route into Israel.

"What type of arrangements are made is crucial," Mr. Fogel says.

"Israel's longest border is the naval border, and one of Israel's biggest concerns in wartime is how this border could be used. What goes into Gaza is even more important if there's a safe passage working," he says, referring to new routes - to be opened next month - permitting travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Some are optimistic that solutions will be found. One possibility is that Israeli and Palestinian inspectors will conduct joint offshore checks.

"Most of the boats coming to Israel are checked at sea, and that

saves us a lot of problems," says Shlomo Dror of Israel's Office of Activities in the Territories.

But Israel's forecast for the opening of the port is about twice that of the Palestinians'.

Now that the port is moving closer to becoming a reality, Israeli firms are concerned that they will lose some of their business, says Ali Shaath, director-general of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Since trade policies meant to protect Israeli businesses from their European competition mean that certain products can't be imported, Palestinians must buy certain materials from Israel only. A maker of biscuits, for example, can buy his butter only from Israel.

"It would free Palestinians from the Israeli market, and that is income that Israel will lose once we have a port in Gaza," Dr. Shaath says. "If a merchant wants to bring in cereal, the end product will be cheaper to the Palestinian consumer if it's brought into the port of Gaza."

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome may not be security and economic issues, but environmental. Some of the strongest Israeli complaints are coming from prominent environmentalists who say the Gaza port could cause widespread ecological problems for Israel's coastline.

Israel's beaches are protected from erosion by sand washed down the Nile River and around the Mediterranean coast. Environmentalists say the breakwater at the Gaza port would block the flow of sand and lead to damage farther north along Israel's shores. And Israeli officials don't trust the Palestinians to ensure tankers do not dump their waste or cause other pollution.

But Palestinian officials reject such concerns. "Economically, the Israelis do not want a seaport in Gaza, that is the real reason for these problems," says Yousef Abu Safieh, the Palestinian minister of the environment.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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