An article entitled “Gas finds in east Mediterranean may change strategic balance” by Yolande Knell which appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the Middle East page of the BBC News website on May 13th 2013 is on the whole fairly balanced and accurate.
However, towards the end of the article when Knell discusses gas reserves off the coast of the Gaza Strip, we find the following statement:
“Further south down the coastline of the Levant Basin, the Gaza Marine field, 30km off the coast of the Palestinian territory, has long been known about. In 1999, the Palestinian Authority awarded the exploration licence to British Gas.
However the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has prevented further development of the field. The situation became more complicated when the Islamist group, Hamas, took over by force in 2007, ousting its rivals from the Fatah faction. Israel then tightened its border and naval blockade of Gaza.”
Let’s examine the accuracy of that last sentence first of all. The violent Hamas take-over of Gaza took place between June 5th and 15th 2007 and the Palestinian Authority – the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people – was forcefully ejected from power. Following that event, both Egypt and Israel largely closed their borders with the Gaza Strip due to the fact that the body charged with joint security arrangements under the terms of the Oslo Accords – the Palestinian Authority – no longer exercised any control over the territory.
Three months later – on September 19th 2007 – in light of the escalation of terrorist rocket attacks against Israeli civilians originating in the now Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip – the Israeli government declared Gaza to be ‘hostile territory’.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization that has taken control of the Gaza Strip and turned it into hostile territory. This organization engages in hostile activity against the State of Israel and its citizens and bears responsibility for this activity.
In light of the foregoing, it has been decided to adopt the recommendations that have been presented by the security establishment, including the continuation of military and counter-terrorist operations against the terrorist organizations. Additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity. Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip. The sanctions will be enacted following a legal examination, while taking into account both the humanitarian aspects relevant to the Gaza Strip and the intention to avoid a humanitarian crisis.”
However, Knell’s suggestion that the “naval blockade of Gaza” was “tightened” immediately after the 2007 Hamas coup (as any reasonable reader would understand her phrasing) is incorrect because the naval blockade was not put in place until January 2009.
Under the terms of the Oslo Accords – willingly signed by the representatives of the Palestinian people – Gaza’s coastal waters remained under Israeli responsibility. The agreements divide those waters into three different zones named K,L and M.
“Subject to the provisions of this paragraph, Zones K and M will be closed areas, in which navigation will be restricted to activity of the Israel Navy.”
Zone L was designated for “fishing, recreation and economic activities”, subject to specific provisions, including the following:
“As part of Israel’s responsibilities for safety and security within the three Maritime Activity Zones, Israel Navy vessels may sail throughout these zones, as necessary and without limitations, and may take any measures necessary against vessels suspected of being used for terrorist activities or for smuggling arms, ammunition, drugs, goods, of for any other illegal activity. The Palestinian Police will be notified of such actions, and the ensuing procedures will be coordinated through the MC.” [Emphasis added]
Following the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the November 15th 2005 agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Agreed documents on movement and access from and to Gaza) made no change to the above provisions.
After the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007, Israel did introduce maritime zones off the coast of the Gaza Strip as part of efforts to reduce arms smuggling into the territory – for example see the Notice to Mariners No. 6/2008 of August 13th 2008 – but that is not the same thing as a naval blockade (which has a specific legal definition) and hence Knell’s claim of a 2007 tightening of “the naval blockade” is inaccurate.
Is Knell’s wider claim that “the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has prevented further development of the [gas] field” an accurate representation of the situation? Well obviously, had the Palestinians chosen to develop the economy of Gaza Strip after Israel’s 2005 disengagement and had a terrorist organization not overrun the territory, turned it into a terrorist enclave which necessitated the implementation of maritime zones and later the naval blockade and had it not ousted the internationally recognized representatives of the Palestinian people authorized with signing agreements on their behalf, there may have been more opportunity for exploitation of offshore gas resources.
But of course it is much easier just to vaguely lay any blame at Israel’s door rather than to trouble BBC audiences with an exact and detailed account of events for which Palestinians might be perceived to have some responsibility.