For nine years a slow and painful discussion has been going on. The people of Gaza, oppressed and frustrated (over 70% of the population of the Gaza Strip are UN-registered refugees), have an offshore gasfield in their territorial waters estimated to be worth at least $4 billion.
In 1994, the Gaza–Jericho first agreement (withdraw of the Israeli Defence Force from Gaza) allocated the territorial waters of the coast of Gaza to an extent of twenty nautical miles as territory of the Palestinian Authority. However, the other side of the agreement was that Israel retain full security control over the area.
In 2000, British Gas, whose product I burn to keep warm here, discovered the Gaza Marine gasfield. British Gas received its licence to explore the Gazan coast not from its owners in accord with the 1994 agreement, but from the Israeli government. It looks like the Israeli government had timed things so that the gas exploration licence would be granted before formally handing the waters over to the PA, to keep Israel ‘in charge’ of the resources. Since the gas discovery, IDF gunboats (made in Britain) have been active in the waters, destroying Gazan fishing industry by forcing fishing boats to return home (as reported by Amnesty International: 15 fishermen killed, over 200 injured). It is clear that Israel considers that the gas is theirs.
British Gas originally wanted to link Gaza Marine by pipeline to Ashkelon on the Israel coast, already a hub for gas pipelines. The PA would have got some profit from the sale, but this would go to a not-so-accountable bank account in the favour of the Fatah presidency. In 2003, Ariel Sharon, as Prime Minister of Israel, vetoed the deal, fearing that independent income for the PA would fuel terrorism against Israel. In 2005, as Sharon was ‘disengaging’ from Gaza (but still besieging it), British Gas tried a different deal to link Gaza Marine to the Egyptian offshore gasfields. The deal progressed well, being a more ‘neutral’ option without direct Israeli involvement.
In 2006, the people of Gaza, unaware that democracy should be boring, ‘accidentally’ elected the ‘wrong party’, Hamas, to power in the PA. The US and EU condemned the Palestinian electorate for not voting for their preferred party — so much for ‘exporting democracy’! Ehud Olmert, Israeli PM, drew Tony Blair into an ‘attractive’ intervention on the issue. If the deal with Egypt were scuppered and the Ashkelon deal put back on the table, the Fatah presidency (the likely corrupt Palestinian party everyone else wanted to win) would be bound more closely with Israel and have the financial weight from the sale of gas to undermine Hamas. This intervention clearly fits with Blair’s neoliberal foreign policy: forcing the opening up of new economic markets, creating economic relationships as the basis for peace and security. Wider energy security policies were discussed, including using the Gaza pipeline to complete a circuit between Eilat on the Red Sea and the Baku–Tblisi–Ceyhan Trans-Caspian Pipeline (under BP leadership) from Turkey. Blair’s intervention worked, but British Gas pulled out of negotiations with Israel on a deal that would leave the PA being paid ‘in kind’ for its gas.
When in 2007, Tony Blair resigned as British PM and immediately became Middle East envoy for the Quartet with a special remit for the economic development of the Occupied Territories. Although on paper, he is committed to the development of the Wadi Arabah, it is more likely that the development of Fatah–Israeli symbiosis via the sale of Gazan gas was his top priority. British Gas were brought back into negotiations, and Israel began bargaining fast during its six months of preparation for the invasion of Gaza. The war, misunderstood by most global media, was about securing energy supply, just as the 2006 Lebanon war was timed to coincide with the opening of the Baku–Tblisi–Ceyhan Trans-Caspian Pipeline. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Blair was quiet about the invasion of Gaza. It has been almost a year, and British Gas, the Israeli government, Fatah and Tony Blair are ready to sit down and divest Gaza of its oil with minimal benefit to its compressed hordes. Meanwhile, Gazan fishermen are still being fired on by British-made IDF gunboats as they attempt to take the fish from the sea, one of the very few other natural resources of the Strip.