Thursday, 22 January 2009

What Does Israel Want?

I like trivia. Especially quizzes. And the one in the Jerusalem Post that morning in early December was particularly tough. I only got four out of ten correct. One of the questions stuck with me though as particularly curious. “Outside which town is the proposed site of the new Palestinian airport.” I didn’t have a clue. Ramallah perhaps? Isn’t that the capital of the West Bank? No, the answer was Netanya. Now I know that Israel is really a small place, but I’ve been there and that is definitely still in Israel and not the West Bank. A curious fact which I have been pondering since.

* * *

By a telephone call, I had just been snatched from working on my house, again, flown overnight from Edinburgh via London to Tel Aviv and frankly I was pessimistic. My driver Momi was pumping me with questions “Martin, will they find anything? Is there gas there?” Having just left the rig six days previously, I had seen no indication of the major find that was about to take place. But that is the nature of exploration: one day there is nothing, the next the whole world wants to be your friend.
Gas was not the only thing on Momi’s mind that morning. “Our attack in Gaza will be a failure if the Hamas leadership survives. But what do they do? They hide under the hospital! We don’t want to kill civilians. Why can’t they hid somewhere else?”
Perhaps they weren’t very enthusiastic about being killed, I thought to myself. What did people expect? Hamas to move into a field so that they could be decently bombed?
“But Momi,” I said. “All the Arab states have said that if Israel retreats to the pre-1967 borders, there will be peace.”
“Why can’t these people accept that they lost! We won, they lost. Get over it and move on!”

The attack on Gaza is now over. Momi didn’t get his wish: the Hamas leadership did survive. But the effect on the people and the city are terrible and it will take years to rebuild. Personally I don’t think that matters much to Israel, even less now that the Tamar gas find is looming larger and larger in the public consciousness. The Saudi’s have already pledge $2 billion worth of aid to rebuild the territory. As I outlined in my previous article “Israel and Gaza – it’s a gas!”, the Palestinians could be a lot richer than they are if Israel had not been consistently blocking the development of the gas fields offshore Gaza. But on the grounds that profits would go to finance weapons for Hamas, negotiations were ended with BG Group and the company closed it’s offices in Tel Aviv in 2007. That was not the end of the story however: talks were restarted in 2008 in an attempt to convince BG Group to sell their stake in the Gazan gas fields to a new consortium, the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC).

Israel needs gas in order to secure water. The chosen method is the building of new desalination plants which are very energy-intensive. So Israel wants energy in order to deal with the effects of global warming. There is even an alternative to this however. Since I last commented upon this issue, I have been contacted by Terry Spragg who has been kind enough to outline to me a new technology for moving large volumes of fresh water across oceans without the need for container vessels, potable water tankers or laying pipelines. Known as the Spragg Bag, each individual section can hold up to 17,000 tonnes of fresh water, with what is claimed to be the world’s strongest zip fastener linking together up to five of these bags. The real smart trick however is that these bags can then be towed by a vessel as modest as a standard-powered tug boat. I can certainly see the value of this remarkable technology, especially in emergencies such as the one that Gaza is facing at this moment. Whether the Israelis will go for it to solve their own water issues, that is a matter which shall be considered in a moment.

There are a few more apparently random thoughts that I would like to add to the mix before struggling to some kind of conclusion. The first is Israel’s recently built security fence, or apartheid wall as it has been called by it’s critics. I think there is truth in both labels. As far as security is concerned, it seems to have worked. Well I was here in 2000, people were a lot more nervous. I was in a bar in Natanya which was then bombed the following week. Security was very tight within Israel. Now it is a lot more relaxed. But there are negatives to it as well. The routing of the wall was little more than a blatant land grab in many places. It’s main function however is to control, absolutely, the movement of people and goods into the Palestinian West Bank.

Likewise the withdrawal from Gaza. It was true that Israelis did withdraw people, but that is nothing like the same as granting the Palestinians within autonomy. The reason being is that the supply of goods and services remain in control of the Israelis. The bombing of the supply tunnels were justified on the grounds that these were the routes by which weapons were smuggled into the territories. Probably true, but they were also the way that most other supplies moved into Gaza too. Laying siege is not the same as granting freedom.

We finally return to the proposed Palestinian airport and why I love trivia. If the airport is built outside Netanya, it is obvious that Israel intends to remain in full control of the movements of people and goods into the West Bank. Just as in Gaza. Just as it was unhappy with the attitude of BG Group and is now pressing that company to sell out it’s stake to the Israeli-controlled IEC. What Israel wants more than anything else is total control over it’s land and resources. The political implications are even more obvious: there will never be a viable two-state solution because an independent Palestine will be outside the control of the Israeli government and this can never be tolerated.

Let us return to water. The gas is so valuable to Israel because it will allow the planned desalination plants to be powered independently of Egyptian supplies. The is an alternative however in the form of mass-importation of water from Turkey (a close ally of Israel) via giant water bags. But we have already seen the case for Israel’s love of control. I therefore think that importation of such a vital resource will not be looked upon favourably by the Israeli government. The only ray of hope I can offer Terry Spragg is this: it is Israel’s stated aim that the planned desalination plants are intended not only to supply the country with it’s water but are also to be used to replenish the depleted aquifers beneath the land. What if the fast-track to refilling the aquifers was not the desalination plants but by limited term importation from Turkey? This would mean that the desalination plants would not have to produce so much water and that the new finds off Haifa will last the country even longer. Hell, it would even be good for the environment!

Selected sources

IEC control

Spragg Bags (and photo credit)

Please refer to my previous article “Israel and Gaza – it’s a gas!” for other references.

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