JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is considering a proposal to build an artificial island off the Gaza Strip that a top official says would give Palestinians living in the besieged enclave their one and only seaport — and maybe a hotel and an international airport, too.
The Israeli minister of intelligence who is promoting the plan, Israel Katz, said the Jewish state is actively seeking financial partners for the $5 billion project.
Katz mentioned the Saudis and Chinese as possible builders of the port — or maybe a mysterious Israeli entrepreneur. He declined to name names.
Why would the Saudi monarch construct a billion-dollar seaport-hotel a few miles from the Zionists’ coast — when the two governments have no formal relations? That’s unknown.
Katz insisted the project is no fantasy island.
He said the plan is being debated in Israel’s security cabinet, where he said it has deep support. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is exploring the option but has not yet made a determination,” said an Israeli official involved in the talks. The intelligence minister said he has briefed Obama administration officials on the proposal.
The Israelis envision the port complex to be constructed atop a man-made island — dredged with sand from the sea bottom, measuring four square miles — that would be located three miles offshore and connected to the mainland by a two-lane bridge.
In Israel’s planning, the bridge is the crucial component in the scheme, allowing access to the port to be tightly controlled.
A bridge could be closed during hostilities — and though the Israelis don’t say this, a section could be blown up in an Israeli airstrike during a war, cutting off the harbor.
Skeptics call the Gaza island proposal farfetched. Critics describe it as another attempt by Israel to blunt criticism over the moribund peace process with the Palestinians and the decade-long trade and travel restrictions that Israel has imposed on Gaza since the Islamist militant movement Hamas took the enclave in 2007.
Hamas and Israel have fought three wars in the last seven years. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. Gaza residents often compare their existence to an open-air prison.
Katz conceded that so far all that exists is a paper study and some drawings. Yet he talked about the project in grand terms, describing it as a way to both guarantee Israel’s security and award Gaza a portal to the world.
The Israelis have not spoken about the project with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, which has nominal control of the strip.
Katz said the idea was to build an island connected by a bridge “like we saw in New York over the Hudson River” — an apparent referral to the George Washington Bridge, which is three-quarters of a mile long and not built across disputed territory fronted by a terrorist group.
The intelligence minister said there would be a checkpoint in the middle of the bridge staffed by international authorities. The island itself would belong to no single country but would have an international legal status and international security forces, he said.
Katz did not know which international authorities would agree to such duty. He suggested NATO.
Israel considers the United Nations a hostile forum, though there are international troops along the Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian borders.
Israel would be responsible for security in the waters surrounding the island, Katz said.
Katz envisions a commercial port on the island that could handle goods coming into and out of Gaza. Currently, goods and people arrive via a crossing with Egypt, which has been closed for most of the last two years, and two others with Israel.
Israel restricts exits — people younger than 50 cannot generally get travel permits unless they need to be hospitalized. The state closely watches what materials move into Gaza, fearful the supplies will be used to make rockets or tunnels.
Palestinians could travel to the island and use the port — through a checkpoint. That’s the idea.
“And this would be just the beginning,’’ Katz said. “We would create electricity, desalination plants. This island will be an island of initiatives of all kinds.”
None of which the Israeli government plans to pay for.
“It can be done,” said Itamar Yaar, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council. “It is not a fantasy.”
But Yaar said other, far less expensive options are available.
Floating islands for example. Or a direct shipping line from Cyprus, secured by Israel. Or more land crossings.
“The Palestinians rejected all the plans at the time — they said it is all or nothing,” Yaar said. “Only way they would agree to any kind of shipment into Gaza would be directly into a Gaza port without security checks.”
Palestinians have begged for just a small, ordinary port built on the shoreline, the kind that exist on dozens of little Greek islands — enough to handle a ferry or two and a couple of small freighters. There are about 1.8 million people in Gaza; most depend on food support from the United Nations.
Such an unsecured port would quickly become a duty-free transit zone for weapons and terrorists, Katz said.
Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focused on Gaza, said that if the Netanyahu government really wanted to help Gaza there were many more immediate, less-expensive ways to buttress the economy and provide relief.
She said markets already exist for Gaza’s products in Israel and the occupied West Bank — but Israel denies permits to move the products. “What is the real motivation behind this proposal?” Hary asked.
Katz said the Israeli military has supported the idea.
“What’s special about this is that from both right, left and center, you can find supporters for this,” Katz said.
Mokhamir Abu Sa’da, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said, “Opening a seaport and airport would help Gaza to end the siege, people could travel, goods could be exported and easily imported from abroad.”
But he wondered, “How does this work without talking to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority?”
“If you talk to ordinary people in the street now, I am sure people would accept it and would be happy. After 10 years of blockade and three wars and daily difficulties, people are looking for hope,” he said.
“The problem of Gaza is political at the end,” the professor said. “The best solution is to end the occupation and let Palestinians have their own state in Gaza and the West Bank that is connected and livable.”
Nakashima reported from Washington. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.