Recent progress on the Gaza marine gas field’s development is positive news and highlights the potential for mutually beneficial agreements in the East Mediterranean. The preliminary approval by Israel of the Palestinian field’s development and exploitation is outcome of mediation efforts exerted by Egypt and Jordan that aimed at de-escalation of tensions and building bridges between Palestinians and Israelis. The benefits of the Palestinian field’s development are multifold and range from advancing energy security in Gaza and providing a substantial windfall for the Palestinian economy to improving Israel’s regional standing and attracting investment for the execution of infrastructure projects within the region.
Strained political relations between Israelis and Palestinians, sporadic Israeli support, concerns that revenues would be used to fund terrorism, and low gas prices have been prime reasons that impeded development of the 23-year-old Gaza marine gas field project. The war on Ukraine and the subsequent global energy crisis, as well as the Israel-Lebanon maritime delimitation agreement brought the Gaza marine gas field project to the forefront and accelerated mediation efforts that led to the preliminary approval by Israel for its development. In case a final agreement is reached, the field that contains 1 trillion cubic feet of gas is expected to generate revenues worth approximately $2.5 billion over its 15-year life span.
The Spirit of the Preliminary Deal
According to the preliminary deal, Egypt’s Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) will develop the field and related infrastructure in pursuance with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2021 between the Egyptian state-owned company and the field’s partners namely, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) and Consolidated Constructors Company (CCC). The MoU foresees the transportation of Palestinian gas through a 40-mile pipeline to Egyptian LNG facilities for liquefaction and consumption by the Palestinians, Egypt, and third markets. Development of the field is expected to proceed in three phases: Phase 1 involves extraction of gas from Gaza marine-1, Phase 2 involves construction of the pipeline, and Phase 3 involves the development of Gaza marine-2, a second well closer to Egypt.
The Palestinian Authority will receive gas revenues and the final agreement is expected to be strictly limited in scope prioritizing the exploitation of Gazan gas and leaving outside the issue of recognition between Israel and Hamas. The latter’s tacit approval of the Gaza marine gas field’s development is allegedly outcome of extensive discussions among security officials that favored an Egyptian offer of an economic incentives’ package to Hamas in exchange for a long-term truce (hudna) with Israel. The conversion of the diesel-based Gaza Power Plant to operate on gas produced by the Gaza marine field holds a prime position in the economic incentives’ package. Improvement of living conditions in Gaza for its 2.3 million population is expected to politically benefit Hamas as currently Palestinians experience regular power shortages. In practical terms, Palestinians in Gaza receive an average of 10 hours of electricity per day according to data released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Overall, development of the Gaza marine gas field would provide Palestinians a domestic low-cost energy source, generate revenues for the Palestinian Authority and help Palestinians transition from diesel toward less carbon-intense fuels.
Palestinian Popular Perceptions
Public perceptions in Gaza have been affected by press reports on American mediation efforts for a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel on the precondition that certain concessions are given to the Palestinians. Specifically, majority of the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank maintains that the approval by the most right-wing Israeli government to date for the Gaza marine gas field’s development has been part and parcel of the discussions underway for the oncoming Saudi-Israeli normalization.
An opinion poll released on September 13, 2023, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) reflects this trend. 29 percent in Gaza believes that an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations could improve the chances for reaching Palestinian-Israeli peace. Related to this perception and taking into consideration that 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, Gazans view more positively than the West Bankers the Oslo Agreement. As cited in the PCPSR poll, 40 percent of Gazans oppose the abandonment of the Oslo Accords by the Palestinian Authority.
When it comes to Palestinian popular perceptions on the development of the Gaza marine gas field, these are reportedly divided between optimists and pessimists. According to the first group, the field’s development would give a positive shock to the Gazan economy by means of job creation and full payment of salaries for public sector employees. As known, the Palestinian Authority currently withholds monthly salaries of public employees by almost 25 percent. Optimists also expect that gas prices will lower thus lifting much of the economic burden on households. At the political level, optimists support that the advancement of the Palestinian economy could pave the way for intra-Palestinian reconciliation between rival political leaders.
Pessimists, on the other hand, argue that economic benefits will be minimal as tax on Gazan gas is expected to be imposed simultaneously by Hamas, Israel, and Egypt thus minimizing prospects of low energy cost and improved living conditions. In addition, they advocate that the gap between Palestinian factions will widen rather than reconcile. To this end, pessimists cite the failure of Palestinian factions’ leadership to reconcile during the recent Egyptian Summit of El-Alamein.
Egypt’s Multileveled Mediation
Egypt has been well positioned to broker negotiations between Hamas and Israel, while Jordan used its political leverage over the Palestinian Authority and hosted a meeting to ensure that discussions continued unabated. In fact, Egypt and Jordan have been third parties in the Palestinian-Israeli meetings held in Aqaba and Sharm Al-Sheikh where the development of the Gaza marine gas field was at the heart of discussions, and a roadmap was put forward for de-escalation of tensions in Gaza.
The economic and regional benefits that Egypt will get from the Palestinian-Israeli agreement on the Gaza marine gas field’s development have been key to the success of Egyptian mediation. Despite the unchanged nature of Egypt’s cold peace with Israel, Egypt has appeared decisive to help Israelis and Palestinians pitch a vision to create shared solutions on energy challenges and opportunities with the Gaza marine gas field at the epicenter.
As per the terms of the preliminary agreement, Egyptian state-owned EGAS will take over development operations of the Gaza marine gas field and secure financing for the overall project. Financing constitutes a crucial element for the project’s development and requires political risk insurance as well as certain payment guarantees initially provided by EGAS and at a later stage by financial institutions.
Related development plans, that are likely incorporated in the economic incentives’ package offered to Hamas during discussions in exchange for long-term truce, include the construction of a new port to improve living conditions in Gaza. These plans foresee, among other options, either the construction of an Egyptian port in El-Arish so that cargoes are transported to Gaza through Kerem Shalom border crossing at the junction of Gaza, Israel and Egypt, or the construction of a Palestinian port on the Egyptian part of Gaza’s south border. Both options entail a leading Egyptian role that centers on investing in critical infrastructure to support the Gazan economy.
At the regional level, Egyptian successful mediation has enhanced Cairo’s leadership role with an emphasis on geoeconomics. In fact, Egypt seeks to pursue its strategic objectives in the region through attraction of economic inflows to enhance its national security and through creation of economic interdependencies balancing between competition and cooperation among geopolitical rivals. The Gaza marine gas field development falls under the category of projects that can cement regional economic interdependencies through a right balance between security considerations and economic cooperation.
The Art of Jordan’s Shuttle Diplomacy
It is upon this regional logic that Jordan used existing partnerships to prepare the ground for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks with initial focus narrowly on the development of the energy-related project in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority’s empowerment. Jordan’s status as an important regional player and mediator between interested parties has been enhanced as a long-awaited win-win initiative has been finally got back to track.
Jordan stands to benefit from the development of the Gaza marine gas field that can be leveraged to create interdependencies. Jordanian state-owned National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed in 2015 a Letter of Intent (LoI) with then operator of the Gaza marine field for the supply of approximately 180 million cubic feet (mcf) of gas per day from the Gaza marine field to Jordan. Despite that the LoI is not technically doable at this point due to lack of proper pipeline network, Jordan’s political commitment is timeless.
Development of a regional energy and transportation infrastructure can pave the way for the promotion of quadripartite trade between Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel. For example, a “water-energy nexus” in a project where solar can be used to generate energy, which would in turn power desalination plants and generate shared drinking water can prove multiply beneficial. As the Jordanian public is averse to importing Israeli gas, converting it into water could scour the stigma not only facilitating trade but also delivering dividends of peace in the form of shared resources.
An additional project that can enhance interdependencies and complementarities is the proposed development of a monorail that would carry hundreds of containers per day from the Israeli port of Haifa to the Jordanian land port of Haditha thus improving trade and supply chain operations for Palestine, Israel, and Gulf countries. There are certain political roadblocks, however, that must be overcome such as the need to achieve equal access for Israelis and Palestinians, and the consent of Egypt due to the project’s likely impact on the Suez Canal’s traffic.
Jordan stands to benefit from development of gas discoveries offshore Gaza. Aqaba’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal has the potential to become a second regional energy hub. Out of various options, Palestinian gas can be directed to Egyptian liquefaction plants and onward to Jordan, where it could be piped via the Arab Gas Pipeline to Syria, and Lebanon. This scheme would help diversify the region’s energy suppliers and routes. It would also advance Jordan’s energy diversification efforts, which include the import of gas primarily from Egypt, the further development of domestic fields like the Risha gas field, construction of a dual oil and gas pipeline from Iraq, and acceleration of the shift toward renewables.
A Final Note
Unquestionably, energy cooperation and the related economic development along with security considerations were key components that led to the preliminary Palestinian-Israeli agreement on the development of the Gaza marine gas field, with Hamas at the backyard. Considering its promising economic, security, and diplomatic benefits for Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, it has become more than evident that the Gaza marine gas development project must be implemented swiftly. Simply put, a “win-win” enterprise seems to be on the regional horizon!