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Yousef Alhelou

Israel kicks off Middle East gas exports while continuing to deny Palestinians their drilling rights

The Leviathan gas field is located in the Mediterranean Sea off Israel's coast [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 January, 2020

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Egypt and Jordan began to receive shipments of natural gas from Israel this month, upsetting Palestinians who continue to be denied their right to drill and extract gas from Gaza.

Israel has become a regional key player in Middle East gas market.

Egypt and Jordan began to receive shipments of natural gas from neighbouring Israel this month, which once was considered an enemy before signing peace treaties in 1979 and 1994 respectively.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz inaugurated the moment of pumping gas from his country's largest offshore, the Leviathan field, to the Egyptian side via subsea pipelines.

The Leviathan gas field, which was discovered in 2010, is a large natural gas field located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel about 130 kilometres West of Haifa city, and about 47 kilometres south-west of the the Tamar gas field – Israel's second largest field, which started production in 2013.

Cairo is now receiving shipments from both fields mainly through an undersea East Mediterranean Gas Company pipeline connecting the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon with the northern Sinai Peninsula.

When the experimental three-month period supply began on January 1 this year, many Jordanians took to the streets to protest what they dubbed "Black Day" opposing the deal, which Amman signed in secret under American pressure, according to demonstrators.

They came out to voice their rejection of using energy "stolen from occupied Palestine", while others cited normalising ties with Israel. But this is now irrelevant as many Arab countries have had diplomatic relationships with Israel for many years.

Jordanians took to the streets to voice their rejection of using energy 'stolen from occupied Palestine', while others cited normalising ties with Israel

The gas supplies remain a politically sensitive subject in both Egypt and Jordan, but what is clear now is that the deals are merely signed for economic trades and profits.

Security collaboration between the three countries and stability along the Sinai region made such projects see the light.

Last February, Israel signed a $19 billion agreement with Egypt to supply it with 85 billion cubic metres of gas for 15 years. In September 2016, Tel Aviv signed another agreement with Jordan worth $10 billion to provide it with about 45 billion cubic metres of gas for 15 years.  

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According to Delek Drilling – the leading Israeli energy partnership in the exploration, development, production and sale of natural gas and condensate – the Leviathan field is enough to satisfy 100 percent of Israel's domestic electricity needs for more than 40 years, leaving enough for exports.

It is also considered the largest economic project in Israel's nascent history – established in 1948 – at the expense of the suffering of the Palestinian people, who continue to live under Israeli military occupation until today.

Being a gas exporter, Israel now sees an opportunity to counter what it describes as a "decades-long effort" by some Arab regimes to use supply pipelines of "oil and natural gas in order to try to pressure Europe against Israel."

Ironically, Israel had previously imported gas from Egypt, but sections of the pipeline were targeted multiple times by Sinai extremists in 2011 and 2012, which brought the shipments to a halt. 

Palestinian natural gas field

The flow of natural gas from Israel to Jordan and Egypt could be upsetting to many, including Palestinians, who are denied their right to drill and extract gas from the Gaza Marine field – discovered in 1999 off Gaza's seashores.

The field is located a proximity 30 kilometres off the seashore of Gaza, but due to the complexity of the geopolitics of the region and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it has laid dormant for nearly 20 years so far since its discovery.

When late leader Yasser Arafat celebrated this discovery, he described the field as 'a gift from God to the Palestinian people'

The field is estimated to contain one trillion cubic feet of gas and estimated to have a life of 15 years.

When late leader Yasser Arafat celebrated this discovery, he described the field as "a gift from God to the Palestinian people".

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The question in the mind of many is why Palestinians are not benefiting and exploiting this "gift"? And why is Israel not permitting the Palestinian Authority [PA] to act freely since this field is located in Palestinian territorial waters, according to Oslo Accords and International law?

The answer is simple – because Israel as an occupying power that does not want to see Palestinians achieving economic dependency and sovereignty.

In addition, there is an unfortunate ongoing split between the two main rival political factions; Fatah-led West Bank under the control of the PA's President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Both territories are geographically separated by Israel, with the division being driven by different political agendas and regional influences.

"The ongoing internal Palestinian rift in Gaza is Israel's best recipe to sabotage the Palestinian-British gas deal because the PA simply does not rule the coastal strip nor does it have any control or security presence there," Palestinian writer and political analyst Akram Atallah tells The New Arab.

"This situation gives Israel a justification to maintain its ongoing sea blockade imposed on the seashore and coastline of Gaza, under the pretext of protecting its sea border from being infiltrated by Palestinian militants."

The undeveloped field means that Palestinians will continue to rely and purchase Israeli gas and electricity. Gazans have been experiencing power outages for up to eight to 12 or sometimes 20 hours a day for the past 14 years.

Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza in September 2005 allowed Hamas to take part in the parliamentary elections, which it won. It has since been able to stay in power despite three devastating wars on the coastal strip, the closing of three commercial crossings into Gaza and the bombing of the territory's main electricity generating company in the summer of 2006. This was all designed to create a new reality in Gaza, imposing a strangulating land and sea blockade, and thus transforming it into the world's largest air prison under the leadership of the democratically elected Hamas faction – classified by the US and Israel as a terrorist organisation.

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If Palestinians were to have free access and drilling rights to their fields, this would reduce their reliance on foreign aid and Israeli energy and be self-sufficient in electricity generation in both Gaza and the West Bank. But as long as the political split persists and as long as peace talks between Israel and the PA remain frozen, especially in light of US President Donald Trump's biased policy towards Tel Aviv, then Palestinians will not be able to develop the gas reserves without political and security clearance from Israel to export the gas.

In late 1999, the PA granted an exploration 25-year licence to the BG Group, Consolidated Contractors Limited (CCC), the British Gas Group (BG Group) and the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) to develop and commercialise the Gaza fields. 

Under international law, every state with a coastline is entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline, within which the coastal states can enjoy extensive rights in relation to natural resources. But when its it comes to Palestinian rights and their natural resources, then this, sadly, does not apply.


Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist and political analyst from Gaza, based in London. He is a United Nations fellow and alumni, and served as a Reuters journalist fellow at the University of Oxford.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefAlhelou

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