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Gaza Marine: Why was the Israel-Hamas war not caused by gas

Israel continues to advance on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Tel Aviv will maintain control over the strip until it is demilitarized and deradicalized.

Netanyahu also appears to be defying the Biden administration’s signal that if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) succeed in defeating Hamas, Israel should allow the Palestinian Authority to take the reins.

However, some experts believe that it is not actually the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip that is behind Tel Aviv’s desire to monitor the region, but an unused gas field called “Gaza Marine”.

Gaza Marine

What is “Gaza Marine”?

“Gaza Marine” is a natural gas field located 36 kilometers (22 miles) off the coast of the Gaza Strip at a depth of 610 meters. It is estimated to contain 32 billion cubic meters of natural gas, and is supplemented by a smaller field containing approximately three billion cubic meters of gas, near Palestinian and Israeli territorial waters.

The field was discovered by British Gas in 1999, after it granted a 25-year license to the Palestinian Authority’s offshore Gaza Strip.

This license gave the company not only exploration rights, but also the right to develop any discovered fields and install the necessary infrastructure. While “British Gas” took a 90% share in the license, the other 10% was bought by “Consolidated Contractors Company” (CCC), a construction giant from the Middle East.

However, the project was mired in controversy from the start. According to the American sociologist and writer Michael Herman Schwartz, Tel Aviv insisted at the time that Israel should control Palestine’s gas profits so that they would not be used “for terror.” With this, the Oslo agreement is officially doomed.

Meanwhile, in September 2000, prominent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat praised the Gaza Marines as a “godsend” to the Palestinians, claiming that it would “provide a solid foundation for our economy, for the establishment of an independent state with holy Jerusalem as its capital.”

Arafat’s statement came at the beginning of the Second Intifada, which broke out after the failed summit in Camp David between US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli-Palestinian hostilities lasted for about five years and were halted by the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in 2005, where new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took decisive steps to de-escalate.

In the following years, the Gaza Strip saw the withdrawal of Israeli military forces in 2005, the rise of Hamas’ political wing, and the expulsion of Fatah from Palestine in 2007. In response to the Hamas takeover, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on the strip that devastated its economy.

In December 2008, a new conflict rocked the strip, known as “Operation Cast Lead” or “Gaza Massacre”, between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and “Hamas”. Hostilities ended on January 18, 2009. However, clashes between Israel and Hamas have continued since then. In all, since 2005, Hamas and Israel have fought five wars, the last of which began in October.

During all these years, “Gaza Marine” remained unused and undeveloped, and Tel Aviv prevented exploration under the pretext that the wealth of natural gas would be used by “Hamas” and other Palestinian rebel groups in their fight against Israel.

The Western Corps lost patience

Stalled negotiations with the Israeli government, the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and the 2008 war in Gaza led British Gas to close its Tel Aviv office. British Gas continued to hold a stake in the exploration of the field, but did not show much interest in it.

A few years later, in 2015, the Palestinian government resumed talks with British Gas to end the exclusive rights it had given the company. After negotiations, the Palestinian side, represented by the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), received a 17.5% stake in the rights to the gas field, and the Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) 27.5%.

On April 8, 2016, Shell bought British Gas, eventually gaining a 55% stake in the field. Shell does not seem to have found the project promising, so it divested itself of its stake in 2018, transferring it to Palestinian officials, forcing them to find a new international contractor.

To proceed with the project, PIF took a 27.5% stake, CCC retained the same stake, and 45% was left to the operating company to begin the long-awaited exploration and exploitation. In February 2021, PIF and CCC signed an agreement with the Egyptian Natural Gas Company (EGAS) to develop “Gaza Marina” on the shores of the Gaza Strip.

The project was intended to contribute to “strengthening Palestinian national independence,” according to a February 2021 memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the parties.

In late November 2022, the Washington Post reported that the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Israel and Hamas could begin a $1.4 billion gas exploration project in the Gaza Sea, adding that it should be completed by February 2023, while production would gas could start as early as March 2024.

In May 2023, another publication, Arab News, reported that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was conducting secret US-sponsored gas negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. In June, Israel officially gave preliminary approval for the development of a gas field in the Gaza Strip, stressing, however, that this would require security coordination with the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Egypt.

Why was the Israel-Hamas war not caused by gas?

It is unlikely that the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could be triggered by gas interests, said Dr. Mamduh G. Salameh, an international oil economist and global energy expert.

“The recent conflict between Hamas and Israel stems from the British Balfour Declaration on the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, and the displacement of their original inhabitants from their homes,” said Salameh. “As far as I know, the British company “British Gas”, in the offshore Gaza Strip, discovered gas reserves estimated at 35 billion cubic meters (bcm).

Indeed, currently Israel has 11 significant gas fields, including Tamar, the largest of which, Leviathan, has about 623 billion cubic meters of gas. That being said, Gaza Marine, which lies near the Gaza Strip, does not make much of a difference to Tel Aviv’s energy interests.

Meanwhile, the fields already discovered along the banks of the Strip – while not as huge as those claimed by Israel – are still large enough to support the economy of Gaza and the Palestinian territories, the expert says.

“If the Palestinian Authority were allowed to explore for oil and gas offshore, it is very likely that they would discover significant gas and oil reserves offshore the likes of Egypt, Israel and Cyprus.” The value of these reserves, once proven, could sustain an independent Palestinian economy for years,” Salameh underlined.

In fact, the stakes are much higher, says Salameh. He claimed that “the Palestinian Occupied Territories could have a future stake in Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves estimated at 3.45 trillion cubic meters and 1.7 billion barrels of oil.”

Konstantin Simonov, general director of the Russian National Energy Security Fund, shares Salameh’s view that the current conflict was not caused by the Israeli-Palestinian energy dispute.

A popular conspiracy theory is that all this started because there are colossal hydrocarbon reserves there,” said Simonov. “First, the Middle East region naturally triggers the concept that all events there should be viewed through the prism of hydrocarbons. However, I think that here, however, hydrocarbons are not of primary and fundamental importance.”

According to Simonov, “British Gas” did not continue with exploration of the sea in Gaza, mainly because the profit from the problem deposits was not significant enough.

“Although “British Gas” did something there, it was actually not the biggest discovery, nor the biggest find,” explained the expert. “And that’s why, in fact, they haven’t undertaken any real development there. Now, I repeat, all the most interesting projects are located in that part of the Byzantine basin that Israel considers its own, and which is already developing.

The Russian scientist doubts that in the foreseeable future the Palestinians could claim rights to other gas fields, which Israel found near the coast. Israel and its Western partners are racing against time to explore and extract hydrocarbons from the Tamar, Leviathan and Aphrodite fields, and are unlikely to allow the Palestinian Authority to raise the issue of delimiting the eastern Mediterranean.

In any case, since it is not rooted in an energy dispute, the ongoing war in Gaza has once again disrupted the Palestinian Authority’s plans for a much-needed Palestinian Authority gas project, which could have helped rebuild the Palestinian economy, and contributed to building a two-state solution. 

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