Seaport may jumpstart Gaza economy

Along with the opening of Gaza Strip’s borders to the world, the construction of a Gaza seaport could pull the embattled patch of land from the brink of economic disaster, Palestinian analysts and economists say.

The Agreement on Movement and Access, as the American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian agreement signed this week is called, provides for the immediate start of construction on Gaza’s first major port.

The agreement, which gives the Palestinians control over a border for the first time, took all-night negotiations Tuesday, Nov. 15 and a strong diplomatic shove from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The basic elements of the deal had been in the works for weeks.

“I have to say as a football fan, sometimes the last yard is the hardest, and I think we experienced that today,” Rice said.

Under the agreement, the Gaza-Egypt border would tentatively open Nov. 25. It will be operated by Palestinian and Egypt border officials, under the supervision of European monitors.

The European group will be headed by an Italian general, said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath.

The advent of a Gaza seaport raises a pantheon of economic opportunity for most Gazans. But for others it also raises the specter of social ills from which the isolated Gaza has been largely immune.

Samir Abdullah, director of the Palestinian Economic Research Institute, called the port “the most important and crucial project to salvage the Gaza economy.”

Praise for what will one day serve as the Palestinian economic gateway to the world is not only about the financial benefits it could yield but about symbolism as well.

“A port declares the openness of the Gaza economy to the rest of the world.”

Abdullah said the port is necessary to attract the foreign and private investment necessary for strong economy.

The seaport currently under consideration would be built south of Gaza City, not far from the spot the settlement of Netzarim once stood. Plans are for a moderate sized port that would cost between $70 million and $80 million, according to Gaza economists.

Palestinian engineers and economists plan to use some of the rubble from the settlements as a foundation for what will one day be a deep sea port.

Even if it takes years to build, the port’s construction alone would provide necessary jobs to jobless Gazans. The average annual income of Gazans is about $600.

Palestinian economists note that a Gaza seaport with its cheap labor and immunity from strikes by union workers (so far there are none) would make it an ideal regional alternative to the Ashdod and Haifa ports one day in the future.

Some Palestinians, said Gaza-based economic analyst Salah Abdel Shafi, see the port as an unnecessary financial burden. It would be far cheaper they say to use the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod.

On the other hand, noted Abdel Shaffi, “not everything is about economic sense. A Gaza seaport is about Palestinian sovereignty, it is about politics.”

But when Gaza’s foremost engineer Ali Abu Shahla thinks of the Gaza port, he doesn’t only envision concrete, steel and a mammoth project worth tens of millions of dollars, but also rats, disease and prostitutes.

“If you ask me whether the freedom to cross our border is essential for our future, I say yes,” said Abu Shahla, once the city engineer of Gaza, “If you ask about seaports, I say no.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.