Hamas joins the regional struggle for maritime power

6 min read
22 September, 2022
Analysis: The Palestinian group's strategy to develop maritime trade routes and protect Gaza's gas resources is part of a regional struggle in the Mediterranean for maritime dominance between US and Iranian allies.

Last week, Hamas announced plans to develop a sea route to break Israel’s coastal blockade, signalling a new strategy in an emerging regional struggle over maritime power in the Mediterranean.

During the event, a foundation stone was laid for the new waterway and a mural inscribed with ‘our gas is our right’ was unveiled. The Gaza Marine gas field, located 36 kilometres off the coast of Gaza, was discovered in 2000 but remains inaccessible due to Israeli restrictions.

The mural also echoed a threat made earlier in July by Hezbollah that it would engage in war with Israel if it proceeded with extraction from the disputed Karish gas field.

Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel have escalated in recent months after Israel moved a production vessel near the offshore field, which Lebanon insists partly falls within its waters.

"Hamas last week announced plans to develop a sea route to break Israel's coastal blockade, signalling a new strategy in an emerging regional struggle over maritime power in the Mediterranean"

During the event in Gaza, Hamas showcased drones and missile capabilities which could operate at sea to protect the proposed trade routes. In April, Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar announced the movement’s intentions to establish a sea passage.

Hamas’ push for the maritime trade route did not emerge in a vacuum. Over several rounds of recent fighting with Israel, the Palestinian group reached understandings that theoretically would enable it to establish a small maritime port to ease the blockade. However, the arrangements, like many others, have stalled.

Multiple attempts have been made to break Israel’s blockade since it was tightened in 2007 after Hamas won Palestinian elections a year earlier.

Most recently, in 2018 a ‘freedom boat’ carrying university students and cancer patients attempted to leave Gaza for Cyprus, only to be intercepted and arrested by Israel’s navy.

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According to Rhiannon Philips, a MENA analyst at London-based risk consultancy Sibylline, Hamas has recognised that the sea is the only way to overcome Israel’s blockade given that land routes are strictly controlled by Egypt and Israel, potentially dragging the conflict into a new arena.

Hamas’ maritime strategy, however, is not isolated from other regional dynamics. In 2020, Iran made a legal commitment to aid Palestinians besieged in Gaza to establish trade and maritime routes.

The law came as a reaction to the US assassination of the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. In the aftermath, members of the Iranian parliament passed a bill with measures to avenge his death, including the need to break the blockades imposed on both Gaza and Yemen by establishing trade and aid routes to export goods paid for by the government or by donations.

In July 2022, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave an ultimatum to Israel regarding Lebanon’s energy resources in the Mediterranean, warning that war was the alternative if an agreement could not be reached on maritime borders and energy exploration.

Gaza fishing boat - Getty
Israel tightened a land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza in 2007. [Getty]

A month later, the Houthis in Yemen did the same, threatening violence if fuel ships were not allowed to enter Houthi-controlled ports and the Saudi-imposed siege was not lifted.

Hamas seems to believe that the US and its allies, including Israel, are weakened and currently more focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, thus presenting an opportunity to ramp up pressure for concessions even if it will mean military confrontation.

“Hamas has also been emboldened since the 2021 war, in which it used new military capabilities that tilted the balance of power relatively in its favour,” MENA analyst Rhiannon Philips told The New Arab.

Internationally, Hamas has been coordinating with Russia over the past few months, including a visit to Moscow, signalling the Kremlin's support and potentially strategic backing for more active Iranian allies in the Mediterranean.

"Hamas' new maritime strategy is not isolated from other regional dynamics"

Yet despite the strategy, there are fundamental flaws in Hamas’ plan which undermine its potential for success. Firstly, its regional allies are mostly importers rather than exporters of the key commodities Gaza needs.

Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are net importers, with Iran the only country that can realistically provide exports or aid to Gaza via sea. Therefore, the maritime route would be limited in its operational scope.

Secondly, the cost of importing goods from Iran is likely to exceed the cost of importing from neighbouring Egypt. As such, it is not economical for Hamas to pay for such imports. Feasible trade between Gaza and Iranian-allied countries can only be done in goods that are banned or of double-use nature that Israel and Egypt would restrict.

The size of trade volume that could be generated from such a route would likely be limited and its economic impact would not significantly, at least at an early stage, resolve Gaza’s economic problems, which ultimately stem from Israel’s land blockade.

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Furthermore, the cost of offering military protection for the ships that will be used in such trade routes will be high, unsustainable, and likely inefficient.

Thirdly, it is not clear in which currency trade between Hamas and Iran would be conducted. While most Palestinians use the Israeli Shekel as their de facto currency, it would be impossible for Iran and Hamas to trade in it.

Gaza is also short on dollars due to sanctions and other restrictions, thus special financial arrangements would be needed to facilitate trade, and that would increase costs.

Lastly, Hamas is risking retaliation from Egypt and Israel, which may feel threatened by the announced plans for a maritime route and opt to impose further restrictions on imports which could enable Hamas to strengthen its stronghold over Gaza.

Hamas’ maritime trade route strategy and the threat to attack Israel’s oil and gas installations in the Mediterranean are expressions of the group’s growing strength in the aftermath of the 2021 war, which the group believes granted it a higher level of deterrence.

"Hamas is also aiding other regional partners and coordinating with them on a common agenda, signalling growing alignment with Iran"

The maritime route is the materialisation of this new perceived balance of power and the belief that Israel will not want to retaliate against Hamas due to the high cost of war with the movement, which was evident during the latest round of escalation in August where Israel only targeted the Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movement.

Hamas is also taking advantage of the US and its allies’ preoccupation with the Ukraine war and the great power competition unfolding internationally. From Hamas’ perspective, and that of other Iranian allies, this signals an unwillingness by Western powers to engage in new conflicts in the Middle East.

Hamas is also aiding other regional partners and coordinating with them on a common agenda, signalling growing alignment with Iran. Hamas’ resumption of relations with Syria’s Assad regime is one such example and could also be viewed as part of efforts to establish maritime routes which include Syria’s Russian-protected seaports as critical hubs.

Ultimately, the battle for control of the sea has only just begun and could, if it escalates, result in a new maritime confrontation in the Mediterranean between rival US and Iranian allies.

Ahmed Alqarout is a specialist in the political economy of conflicts. His research focuses on the impact of financial and economic policies on regime stability in the Middle East and North Africa.