What is Israel's Ben Gurion canal plan and why Gaza matters

What is Israel's Ben Gurion canal plan and why Gaza matters
As Israel intensifies its Gaza onslaught, focus turns to the controversial Ben Gurion Canal Project, originally proposed in the 1960s as an alternative to the Suez Canal.
4 min read
17 November, 2023
Ariel Sharon gestures as he briefs former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in an army trench in 1971 near the Suez Canal [Getty]

As Israel continues its onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip, talks about a long-discussed economic opportunity known as the Ben Gurion Canal Project have surfaced online.

Named after Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, the project, conceived in the late 1960s, sought to create an alternative route to the Suez Canal, the primary shipping route connecting Europe and Asia.

While Israel rejects calls for a ceasefire and its military campaign on Gaza shows no sign of an immediate end, it becomes crucial to delve into the historical context of the Ben Gurion Canal Project, its proposed significance, and the intricate geopolitics surrounding the Suez Canal.

Understanding the motivations behind the proposal requires exploring the complex history of the Suez Canal, the Tripartite Aggression of 1956, and the unexpected shocks to world trade resulting from its closures.

This backdrop underscores the potential strategic importance of an alternative canal, controlled by Israel, in the ever-evolving dynamics of the region.

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Who is Ben Gurion?

David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) was a prominent Zionist leader from Poland, who was known as the founding father of Israel.

He was described as a ruthless man who gave orders to Zionist militias to see the mass explosion of Palestinians from their lands and facilitated the influx of  Jewish immigrants from all over the world into Palestine. He served as the first prime minister of Israel in 1948.

What is the Ben Gurion Canal project?

The Ben Gurion Canal project was a proposal in the 1960s by Israel to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. The route was planned via the port city of Eilat and the Jordanian border, through the Arabah Valley for about 100 kilometres between the Negev (Naqab) Mountains and the Jordanian Highlands and veered west before the Dead Sea basin, and heading through a valley in the Negev Mountain (Naqab) Range. It would then head north again to circumvent the Gaza Strip and connect to the Mediterranean Sea.

However, a connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea already exists through the Suez Canal - an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt that offers vessels a direct route between the North Atlantic and the northern Indian oceans, reducing journey distance and time.

The Suez Canal provides the shortest sea route between Asia and Europe and currently handles roughly 12 percent of the world's trade.

Timeline of the Suez Canal
1858 – French Suez Canal Company formed to build the canal with 99-year lease
1868 – Suez Canal opens
1875 - The Suez Canal Company comes under French-British ownership after the UK buy 44% shares
1888 - Constantinople International Convention guarantees free use of the canal
1956 - Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal Company
1956 – The Suez Crisis results in closing the canal after the Tripartite Aggression
1957 – The Suez Canal reopens
1961 – The Nasser Project begins, allowing for the transit of bigger ships
1967 – Egypt closes access to Suez Canal after the start of the Six-Day War with Israel
1975 – Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat reopens Suez Canal

Why did Israel propose the project?

The Constantinople International Convention - signed in 1888 by the great European powers of the era - once guaranteed a right of passage via the Suez Canal to all ships during times of war and peace.

However, after the Suez Canal was nationalised in 1956 by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt closed off access to the canal on several occasions following the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the violent displacement of Palestinians, also known as the Nakba.

Egypt blocked Israeli vessels from accessing the canal from 1948 until 1950, affecting its ability to trade with East Africa and Asia, and hampering its ability to import oil from the Gulf region.

Access to the Suez Canal was closed to all international shipping in 1956, following the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt, which involved an alliance between Israel, the UK and France who sought to regain control of the Suez Canal and remove Nasser from power.

The canal was effectively closed during the conflict, and the situation escalated into a crisis with international and economic ramifications.

The Suez Canal was also closed for a staggering eight-year period in 1967, at the beginning of the Six-Day War, also known as the Arab–Israeli War, which was fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (primarily Egypt, Syria, and Jordan).

When all land trade routes were blocked by Arab states, Israel's ability to trade with East Africa and Asia, mainly to import oil from the Persian Gulf, was also severely hampered.

The closure of the canal was also a significant and unexpected shock to world trade and disrupted global commerce.

An alternative to the Suez Canal, especially one under the authority of key Western ally Israel, would eliminate the potential use of the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran as leverage by Egypt against Israel or its allies.

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Economic gains

The Suez Canal has been critical in driving Egypt’s economy forward. It earns revenues through tolls and transit fees collected from vessels that pass through the canal.

In 2021, some 20,649 vessels flowed through the Suez Canal - an increase of 10 percent over 2020. In 2022, annual revenue stood at $8 billion in transit fees. The Suez Canal set a new record with an annual revenue of $9.4 billion for the fiscal year that ended 30 June 2023.

While the canal is Egypt's economic centrepiece, attracting investments to the country and leading to the development of services and industries, its primary importance remains to be its ability to facilitate international trade, making an efficient global trade route.

The Ben Gurion Canal, if constructed, would rival the Suez Canal and cause a major financial threat to Egypt. 

If it goes ahead, it would be almost one-third longer than the current 193.3km Suez Canal, and whoever controls it will have enormous influence over the global supply routes for oil, grain, and shipping.

Why Gaza matters

The US had once proposed to use some 520 nuclear bombs on the Negev Desert (Naqab) to help create the canal. With Gaza razed to the ground, there have been alleged plans to literally cut corners and reduce costs by diverting the canal straight through the middle of the Palestinian enclave. However, the presence of Palestinians there would remain an obstacle.

Since Israel launched its onslaught on the besieged enclave, it has pushed Palestinians to move south by relentlessly bombing northern Gaza before carrying out a ground invasion weeks later. At least 400,000 Palestinians have been displaced from the north to the south, according to statistics from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).

Some 800,000 Palestinians remained in areas considered "north" - namely past north of Wadi Gaza. Israel's indiscriminate bombing campaign, which has mostly targeted the north - has killed at least 11,470 people in Gaza - mostly civilians, including women and children.

The death toll has not been updated for days due to Israel's targeting of the largest hospital in Gaza, Al-Shifa, which was a centre for collecting data on deaths and the wounded.

Israel denies it has plans to annex the Strip but it had called for the "voluntary migration" of Palestinians in Gaza amid accusations that it was "ethnically cleansing" the enclave.