Gaza’s energy riches stay untapped amid political stalemate

Palestinian needs to be able to develop Gaza's gas fields to allow the besieged population to prosper

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Increasing Palestinian demand for energy and the possibility that Israel is looking to engage with the Palestinian Authority (PA) may seem to offer cause for optimism regarding the development of the Gaza Marine offshore natural gasfield. If only that were the case.

Israel relinquished its rights to the exploratory wells in 2000 and handed them over to the PA.

It was clear even then, however, that developing this resource, which is estimated to contain around one trillion cubic feet of gas, would require not only economic but also enormous political clout to be properly tapped. The subsequent political stasis resulting from the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 all but ensured that the Palestinians’ only hydrocarbon reserves would remain untouched.

In September 2012 there were some small signs of hope, after discussions between Benjamin Netanyahu and Quartet Middle East Envoy Tony Blair, as well as an approach by the PA. Israel later “confirmed its intention” to engage in bilateral talks about developing Gaza Marine.

The intention was for revenues to be deposited into an international account controlled by the PA, thereby preventing the funds from being channelled to Hamas. No progress has yet been made towards that aim.

Meanwhile, the recent crackdown on smuggling operations in the Sinai has brought Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to their knees, robbing locals of their cheap fuel source from Egypt received via the underground tunnels, most of which have been destroyed. Oil and gas from Israel is expensive, meaning that there is a real need for Gaza Marine’s riches.

The lingering rift between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated PA effectively stymies any negotiations Israel may have hoped to undertake, as the PA has no authority in Gaza.

Hamas retains de facto jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip and, consequently, over Gaza Marine. The PA cannot negotiate on behalf of Hamas, and any agreement that Israel could make with Ramallah would certainly be declared null and void in Gaza. Israel also still refuses to negotiate with Hamas. Nor has the crisis caused by Mohammed Morsi’s fall in Egypt persuaded Hamas to hold serious talks with Ramallah.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Hamas’s internal security services summoned and detained several Fatah activists in Gaza during August.

On the Fatah side, Azzam Al Ahmad, who leads the group’s delegation to reconciliation talks, recently told a Palestinian radio station that his organisation “will not remain captive to Hamas” and is contemplating “clear and painful moves” against it.

Finally, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not seem to be terribly interested in making deals of any sort at the present. The bilateral pre-negotiations launched by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of July appear to be going nowhere. Both sides have stalled on key issues such as settlement building, borders and the idea of yet another interim period.

Moreover, Mr Kerry’s preoccupation with Syria has shifted Washington’s attention away from Israeli-Palestinian talks.

For Israel, there are telling signs that point to the persistence of the political stasis and the consequent absence of impetus for developing Gaza Marine.

The $4 billion economic stimulus initiative for the West Bank that Mr Kerry announced in May purportedly included a proposal for the exploitation of Gaza Marine that Mr Netanyahu quashed, and Israeli security hardliners are not convinced that funnelling profits into a PA-controlled bank account will prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

There is no doubt that developing Gaza Marine would be an enormous economic and political boon for the Palestinians, but this potential is no match for the entrenched dynamics that constantly work against such a project.

Continuing Hamas-Fatah hostilities, Hamas’s refusal to back down, and the ever-present strains on Israeli-Palestinian relations are forces that the promise of hydrocarbons cannot reckon with.

If there is to be any sort of resolution, all of the parties will have to confront these political demons by making very difficult and painful decisions.

Allison Good is a freelance journalist based in the US