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Israel's artificial 'Gaza Island' plan is textbook Nakba 2.0

Israel's artificial 'Gaza Island' plan is textbook Nakba 2.0 and an ecological crisis waiting to happen
30 January, 2024
Israel's foreign minister is using the idea of an artificial island off Gaza to potentially facilitate further forced displacement of the Strip's population.

With Israel’s ongoing invasion of the Gaza Strip, the world has witnessed some very disturbing realities for the people of Palestine, including generations of families killed in their homes, 2,000-pound bombs levelling blocks, refugees forced to drink water contaminated by raw sewage for lack of an alternative, and young couples disappearing into Israeli prisons, where they experience “what may amount to torture” according to the United Nations.

Even more so, the war has given many Israeli figures and officials the platform to throw around shocking suggestions such as a recent Israeli proposal to create an artificial island off Gaza’s coast to expedite humanitarian aid.

When Israeli officials travelled to Brussels for meetings on January 22, their European counterparts urged them to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

Josep Borrell, the European Union High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called this step crucial for a “sustainable, lasting peace” premised on a two-state solution.

Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Yisrael Katz, for his part, saw the meetings as a testing ground for a far different idea: building an artificial island off Gaza’s coast.

He showed the European officials a video of his plan for the artificial island, which he presented as a border crossing of sorts. Israel could use the artificial island as a platform to screen people and goods entering Gaza by the Mediterranean Sea, supplementing the current channels for humanitarian aid along the territory’s border with Egypt.

Gaza’s struggles with access to humanitarian aid, however, come not from a lack of border crossings but from discriminatory, draconian Israeli border controls — with the UN accusing Israel of blocking humanitarian aid altogether.

Who is behind the 'Gaza Island' plan?

Katz, who belongs to the Likud political party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first plugged the video of the artificial island in 2017, while serving in the simultaneous roles of Minister of Intelligence and Minister of Transport and Road Safety.

That earlier proposal indicated that the island would span 534 hectares, cost $5 billion, and feature desalination plants, a power station, an area for cargo ships and shipping containers, and perhaps even a drawbridge and an airport.

The video indicated that funding for the project, which Katz had first brought up years earlier, would come from the international community.

The video also posited that the artificial island would then serve to “strengthen the cooperation and relations between Israel and the countries in the region and the international arena,” with Katz billing the controversial project as beneficial for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Expanding on the 2017 proposal, the Israeli delegation in Brussels suggested that the artificial island might incorporate housing for Palestinians.

While the Israelis clarified that they just intended to offer Gazans additional housing options — not force Palestinians out of Gaza and onto the artificial island — fears of displacement and ethnic cleansing remain widespread among the territory’s inhabitants and throughout the international community.

“We do not need any island,” Riyad al-Maliki, the top diplomat for the Palestinian Authority, announced following his meetings with EU leaders, as Katz’s latest suggestion for the artificial island made the rounds.

“Not a natural one, not an artificial one. We will remain in our homeland. The land of Palestine is ours, it belongs to us, and we will remain in it.”

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Katz might have been hoping that his proposal for an artificial island, replete with the flashy video, would conjure images of the Middle East’s best-known examples: the artificial islands that Dubai spent a small fortune constructing off its coast in the Persian Gulf and that now welcome tourists from across the world.

However, researchers from neighbouring countries and the UN have documented how the Dubai projects “have threatened the environmental security of Persian Gulf,” “caused alarming environmental consequences for other coastal states,” and damaged “large areas of previously ecologically productive coastal environments.”

Given the toll that the ongoing war has already taken on Gaza’s natural environment, the construction of an artificial island could thrust the territory that much deeper into an ecological crisis.

Gaza as a template

Farther afield, the suggestion of using an island to address the needs of underserved refugees has a far more disturbing precedent in recent history.

Bangladesh, home to almost a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, has long tried to relocate tens of thousands of them to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, ill-equipped for human habitation.

The Rohingya, like their Palestinian counterparts, became refugees after fleeing a military often accused of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.

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The refugees whom Bangladesh placed on Bhasan Char then found themselves on the brink of parallel environmental and humanitarian crises, with little food and the looming threat of deadly monsoons.

The Rohingya experience offers an unambiguous warning of the challenges that any Palestinians moved to an artificial island off the coast of Gaza may face.

The prospect of the artificial island’s immediate creation seems remote, with the international community resisting the removal of Palestinians from Gaza and Israel portraying the idea as Katz’s pet project rather than a standing policy.

Yet the concept has circulated for the better part of a decade. And after the Brussels meeting, a proposal with dire environmental and humanitarian implications for Palestinians became that much more mainstream.