Ports are the hubs of history. They signify the life blood of a city, a state, and society. Be it by air or by sea, ports suggest transport and mobility. They are also the fantasies of states who wish to expand their power, or those who wish to become powers. Without them, there can be no discussion, no contention of genuine sovereignty. The negotiators of the Oslo accords made that clear, marking down the need for such ports for Palestinians.
In Cairo negotiators are hammering this, though there may be more of the former. Hamas official Khalil al-Haya has promised revenge for the death of his son in Operation Protective Edge. “One day we’ll go after Israel for that.” In the same breath, however, al-Haya would claim that, “There is a real opportunity to reach an agreement, but (Israel) must stop the manoeuvres and playing with words.” Neither side is entirely keen on giving way on the other any new arrangements for Gaza, but Israeli insistence on peace without Hamas is much like insisting on the roast without crackling.
Those from the Hamas side are understandably pushing for as much as they can get, but what is remarkable is that they are, on the issue of sea and airports, merely asking for what was always on the cards. In July 2000, construction commenced on a $73 million port near Gaza City, much of the funding having been obtained from European sources. Fighting two months later put an end to that, with Israeli forces levelling the site.
The negotiating team is also a mix – including members from Fatah (the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas. Superficially, at least, their aims are united: an agreement that Israeli targeting of Palestinian positions be stoped; ending the siege of Gaza; and the ultimate issue of Palestinian rights and statehood. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has put his cards on the table: any lasting deal must include a complete opening of Gaza’s borders.
A seaport would have the effect of allowing free movement and travel, the very sorts of things that are anathema for the Israeli security forces. It would see, if one is to accept the suggestions of Ali Saath, a Palestinian official who presided over the original project, the handling of 100,000 tons of cargo and 1,000 passengers a day. Banal stuff for non-Gazans; near inconceivable for those whom the port would benefit.
The very language of the campaign in Gaza, and the response to the rockets, has been limiting, rather than permitting, for Palestinian mobility. The Palestinians are not trusted with anything resembling sovereignty – the Israelis have seen to that, citing Hamas militancy as a good reason to keep the front up. In that sense, the strategy of Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been dominant: destroy, rather than legitimise, Hamas. Indeed, Lieberman has even pondered the prospect, as he did before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, that Israel and the PA might consider turning Gaza into a territory under United Nations mandate.
This is all a moot point, mere open speculation of the sort Lieberman allows himself at stages. The very fact that flotillas for aid are being organised, as they have been before, to break the continued blockade of Gaza, is an indication of the continued desperation. The Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) is promising to sail to Gaza “within 2014” and also bring back Palestinian goods for purchase.
The other complication here is that the talks are taking place in Egypt. Cairo has made no secret of its reluctance in dealing with Hamas. Those in Gaza have been caught in a draining and costly pincer movement – a determined Hamas movement on the one hand, and the reluctance on the part of either Egypt or Israel to countenance its continuing relevance. The occasion of the Cairo discussions is an indication that some easing might have taken place, despite the obvious hostility shown by the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities. The reality is this: Hamas is not going anywhere.
The issue of Palestinian statehood is the enormous fly drowning in the ointment. You cannot have a state without facilities, or a society without infrastructure. One governed by contingency, whose services and presence are mutable at the instance of every incursion by an enemy force, can hardly claim any pretence beyond that of mere bare existence. The very fact that Israel demands Gaza to be demilitarised suggests a direct amputation – humble what Palestinian resistance might be possible, and hope for further subordination.
The other feature of the Israeli strategy is to limit Hamas’ influence through dividing the Palestinian cause. While there is little fondness for Abbas, he is their preferred horse in the stalled race for statehood. Israeli negotiators are hoping that the PA will be taking responsibility for managing Gaza’s 12 km border with Egypt. The hope here is preventing the smuggling of military material through Rafah.
Gaza is a mutation, a monstrosity, and one with living beings who are at the mercy of their negotiators, and their heavily armed neighbours. Until the discussants at this point admit this very fact, the fly will continue to struggle.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org