It wasn’t always about gas. Besides, the manufactured ideology justifying an Israeli homeland by displacing the original inhabitants of thousands of years, remains. It just gets increasingly strident, maniacal and intolerant of debate and dissent.
The gas issue started in 1999, when the Palestine National Authority granted British Gas (BG) and the Lebanese-owned Consolidated Contractors International Company (CCC) offshore oil and gas exploration rights for 25 years. The wells drilled promised well over a trillion cubic feet of gas, estimated to be worth $6.5 billion today. But the agreement itself was a shockingly unfair one, amounting to cheating the Palestinians of their fair share. 60% went to BG, 30% to CCC, leaving the Palestinians with a mere 10% — inexplicably committed for Israel’s use on their terms, which suggests the Palestinians were ignorantly advised or deliberately misled.
Even so, it filled the Palestinians with hope, and President Yasser Arafat held a special ceremony to that dream. They would finally be able to get back on their feet and more. Analysts predicted it could be the next Gulf or Saudi Arabia. The Israelis had their share of offshore gas facilities too, but 60% of the gas reserves fell to the Palestinians.
As far as territory was concerned, the thousands of statements and documents, mostly open and echoed by historians and journalists, made it abundantly clear that the Israelis had long planned the takeover of all Palestine. — Especially since 1948 when the UN determined Israelis had the right to carve out their state from someone else’s homeland (never mind what the Palestinians thought). Straightaway then, David Ben-Gurion said, “We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.” That sentiment has been echoed by every Israeli leader, politician and influential personality as they ate away at Palestinian territory and dignity.
Arafat had laid down a condition. Gas from the sea would first be transported to Gaza and then pumped through underground pipes to Israel. That way, Gaza’s ownership over their own resources would be ensured. Seemingly, Arafat had to go, and in 2004, he suddenly took ill and died. Although French medical experts claimed death from natural causes, Swiss experts disputed it. After exhuming his body in 2012, they confirmed he’d been poisoned. It couldn’t be proved by who.
It became easy to thwart the Palestinians after Hamas was elected to power. Both Israel and the US declared Hamas a terrorist organization and refused to negotiate with it — in effect, refusing recognition to an elected government. This turned into an ongoing stand-off that kept Palestinians in limbo. No progress could be made with Gaza’s gas fields.
As with most other countries, Gaza’s jurisdiction extended 20 nautical miles from the coast, but Israel kept muscling in, attacking and driving Gaza’s fishermen from their rich fishing waters, causing severe loss of Gaza’s main protein source, and reducing effective Palestinian control to only 3 nautical miles.
On the 4th of June this year, Palestine was finally recognized by the UN as a sovereign state — what little land they’ve been left with; a long, narrow strip barely 140 square miles (about one-ninth the area of Karachi) and a population density four times that of Bangladesh. But it meant international recognition, including of its offshore rights.
Since the gas discovery, Israel has been constantly throwing a spanner in the works, so that gas extraction never got off the ground. It would pretend to push forward negotiations while simultaneously scuttling the same deals. The Palestinians were subjected to a continuous state of intimidation, deprivation and conflict. They hardly wanted a fight, so the Israelis merely provoked them. In 2001, when PM Ariel Sharon was elected, Palestine’s sovereignty over its gas fields was challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court. Sharon bluntly stated that Israel would never buy gas from Palestine, meaning he considered it Israel’s property.
BG went behind the Palestinians’ back to collude with Israel to exclude Hamas from negotiations. For example, in mid-2007, the Jerusalem Post reported that BG and Israel had planned to transfer gas money accruing to the Palestine Authority into an international bank account until Hamas was out of power, because neither party wanted funds to go into the hands of terrorists! And any payment would be in goods and services, not currency. They were trying to nullify the 1999 contract between BG and Arafat.
In 2008, Israel struck Gaza with ‘Operation Cast Lead’. It killed almost 1400 Palestinians (and 9 Israelis), destroyed over 4000 homes and displaced 50,000 Gazans. It has been surpassed only by the current onslaught.
Routinely harassed and deprived of basics, for no reason except that they are unwanted, 80% of Gazans live below the poverty line, 40% unemployed, and 60% food dependant on UNRWA. Said Teddy Kollek, a former mayor, “We said things without meaning them, and didn’t carry them out ... Never have we given them a feeling of being equal before the law. As mayor, I did something for Jewish Jerusalem in the past 25 years. For Arab East Jerusalem? Nothing! Yes, we installed a sewage system for them and improved water supply. You know why? You think it was for their good, for their welfare? Forget it! There were cases of cholera there, and the Jews were afraid that they would catch it, so we installed a sewage and water system against cholera.”
Things suddenly went wrong. After Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was relieved of power in 2011, Islamist groups forced the government to cancel the 20 year contract and cut off gas supplies to Israel, despite the crippling loss of foreign exchange. Then they got further sobering news about their own energy situation.
Israeli chief scientists asked to draft a gas policy, discovered inflated reserve figures, underestimation of future demand, and overestimation of production potential. Besides, all the gas was not necessarily commercially recoverable. The government was advised to drastically reduce gas exports as reserves would be depleted in less than 4 decades, forcing return to horrendously expensive oil. Israel will face severe gas shortage from 2015 – next year.
The report was suppressed until the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz obtained a leaked copy. The Israelis now wanted Gaza’s gas fields immediately to offset short supply – but without paying for it. For them, that meant getting rid of Hamas. Only a harsh military operation could possibly uproot them.
An excuse was needed to start a war. There wasn’t any, so they simply provoked. Kidnappings and killings, even of their own kind, are old ‘false flags’ they could blame Hamas or anyone else for.
Emboldened and able to blackmail even their sponsor, the US, which gives more military aid to Israel than all other countries combined, Israel went for the kill without so much as a by-your-leave. After all, the US routinely vetoes any UN resolution critical of Israel – 43 times so far, more than all other countries combined on other issues. And the rest of the west has still not been able to shake off the psychological grip the US has on them.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.