Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Nafeez Ahmed looks at the evidence the current conflict not only suits extremists on both sides, but also hides a deal to monopolise natural resources

Control of Palestinian natural resources has increasingly become a defining feature of Israel’s relationship with the Occupied Territories. The worst spate of military violence in Gaza since 2014 is no exception.

The new evidence examined by Byline Times reveals that the latest hostilities broke out following an escalating dispute between Israel and Hamas over control of Gaza’s offshore gas reserves, which hit a wall just a month before the latest hostilities.

A UN report along with a US Army study published under the Obama administration further suggest that the Biden administration’s decision to go ahead with a $735 million arms sale to Israel is linked to US strategic interests in supporting Israel’s domination of East Mediterranean energy resources including gas potentially owned by Palestinians.


Palestinian Gas

Negotiations over Palestinian gas have sparked and stalled for over two decades since UK oil company BG Group discovered an estimated 1.6 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Gaza Marine in 2000. But they accelerated again late last year after US oil giant Chevron purchased Houston oil firm Noble Energy, which was contracted by the Israeli government to develop its offshore oil and gas resources. 

In 2017, Noble was accused of participating “in an act of pillage, in violation of international humanitarian and criminal law” by SOMO, a Dutch human rights organisation funded by the European Commission and Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SOMO pointed to the company’s own annual report which confirmed that five years earlier Noble had begun unilaterally extracting gas from Israel’s Noa South field, which is contiguous with the Palestinian Border Field under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

At the time, I spoke to SOMO researcher Lydia de Leeuw who told me that BG Group maps confirmed that any extraction of gas from Noa clearly risked simultaneously extracting gas from Palestinian gas reserves.

“Noble did not take into consideration the occupied status of the Gaza Strip, nor the Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination of the Border Field and Gaza Marine,” she said. The following year, de Leeuw and another SOMO researcher were blocked from entering Israel and expelled from the country. Documents from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs would later reveal that the researchers are no longer allowed into Israel due partly to their work for SOMO investigating companies in the Occupied Territories.

In partnership with Israeli energy firm Delek Group, Noble Energy has also extracted gas from other Palestinian resources, such as Mari-B, which could fall within 6,600 square kilometres of maritime territory potentially belonging to Palestine. Mari-B contained 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – enough to supply Palestinians for at least 15 years. The gas extracted by Noble and Delek from Noa, Mari-B and the Palestinian Border Field has been sold to the state-run Israel Electric Company, which in turn sells electricity to Palestinians, and supplies Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

Chevron’s purchase of Noble Energy in October 2020 therefore makes the American oil giant complicit in the potential ongoing theft of Palestinian gas, which has occurred with no objections from the PA.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Nov. 1, 2015. Israel’s economy minister Aryeh Deri resigned Sunday, paving the way for the government to sign a multi-billion gas deal with U.S.-based Noble Energy, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Photo: JINI/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Depriving Palestinians of their Own Resources

In 2019, a major United Nations study unreported until now concluded that “occupation continues to prevent Palestinians from developing their energy fields so as to exploit and benefit from such assets. As such, the Palestinian people have been denied the benefits of using this natural resource to finance socio-economic development and meet their need for energy. The accumulated losses are estimated in the billions of dollars.” 

The report titled The Economic Costs of the Israeli Occupation for the Palestinian People: The Unrealized Oil and Natural Gas Potential was published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and authored by McMaster University economist Professor Atif Kubursi, who has been Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) since 2006. The UNCTAD report warned that the rush to exploit Eastern Mediterranean gas resources when property rights have not been equitably allocated is depriving the Palestinians of a legitimate stake in the Levant basin’s resources in violation of international law. 

Occupation has impoverished the Palestinian people, undermined their capacity to access and utilise their resources and denied them the right to move freely within their homelands

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: The Economic Costs of the Israeli Occupation for the Palestinian People: The Unrealized Oil and Natural Gas Potential

Containing some 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, the basin comprises “shared common resources, whose exploitation by any one party diminishes the share of neighbouring parties,” stated the UN report. The net value of these resources amounts to $524 billion, which should be distributed appropriately among the different parties, including Israel and Palestine: “These fields could be unitised, and their development could be undertaken on behalf of all parties, whose property rights should be ascertained prior to exploitation… Palestinians have a major stake not only in the fields under their land but in all of the common reserves.” 

The report found that Palestinians have already lost roughly $2.57 billion due to Israel’s “prevention of the exercise of their right to benefit from the exploitation of their natural resources, guaranteed under international law. The longer Israel prevents Palestinians from exploiting their oil and natural gas reserves, the larger the opportunity costs of these reserves and the larger the costs of the occupation borne by Palestinians become.” 

Contrary to conventional assumptions, the UN report concluded that Israeli efforts to separate Palestinians from access to their own land, natural resources and water have been central to the evolution of the conflict. The control of energy is part of a wider process whereby since 1967, “the Palestinian people have lost access to more than 60% of West Bank land and two-thirds of its grazing land. In Gaza, half of the cultivable area and 85% of fishery resources are inaccessible to producers.” 

Israel has also extracted water above the level agreed under the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and confiscated 82% of Palestinian groundwater for use inside Israel’s borders or in its settlements, forcing Palestinians to import over 50% of their water from Israel.

“Occupation has impoverished the Palestinian people, undermined their capacity to access and utilise their resources and denied them the right to move freely within their homelands to conduct normal economic and social transactions among themselves and with their neighbours and trading partners throughout the world,” concluded the UNCTAD report.

Byline Times asked Chevron to comment on its position on Noble’s actions, particularly now that Noble’s operations are now Chevron’s, and also on what appears to be Chevron’s complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian potential claims to other regional fields. 

“Chevron is pleased to partner with the State of Israel, and we look forward to supporting the country’s strategy to develop its energy resources for the benefit of the country and the region,” said a Chevron spokesperson. “Chevron operates in compliance with local law and international standards and believes we have a responsibility to respect human rights and that we can play a positive role in the communities where we operate.”


Gas Scramble

By early 2021, a fresh round of talks had begun between Israel, the PA, Qatar and the EU on how to leverage Chevron’s involvement in longstanding Israeli ambitions to export Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe. 

These continued a revival of discussions under the Trump administration. In 2019, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the PA launched the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to develop a regional hub that could export gas to Europe. The initiative was supported by Trump’s State Department, and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made sure to attend early meetings. 

The plan, apparently backed by the Biden administration and involving US oil giant Chevron would in effect seal Palestinian energy dependence on Israel. 

The Biden administration, however, has continued to spur on the revitalised discussions. In February 2021, officials from the Office of the Quartet, a diplomatic initiative on Israel-Palestine relations operating on behalf the United States, United Nations, EU and Russia, confirmed a new EMGF plan to export gas from Israel’s deepwater Leviathan field operated by Chevron through an existing pipeline into Israel, and from there into Gaza through a proposed new pipeline extension. Qatar would finance the Israel side of the proposed pipeline, while the EU would finance the section going into Gaza. 

The plan culminated in a 21 February agreement between Israel and Egypt to connect Israel’s Chevron-run field to facilities in northern Egypt that export gas to Europe. These discussions included the prospect of developing Palestinian gas in the Gaza Marine field. On the same day, the PA and the state-owned Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Ramallah to develop the field. The PA’s Palestine Investment Fund declared that the arrangement would offer “a radical solution to the energy crisis afflicting the Gaza Strip”. An official Palestinian source revealed that the PA “had received positive signals from the Israeli side regarding the possibility of developing the Gaza Marine gas field, off the shores of the Gaza Strip in the Mediterranean.” 

An official Quartet document I had obtained in 2015, however, suggests that the Gaza Marine development has been envisaged to export gas to Arab markets on behalf of Israel. The electric grid, the document said, should be upgraded to establish “interconnecting regional grids” which will involve the West Bank importing “electricity from Israel and Jordan,” while gas for the “Palestinian power sector” in Gaza can come from a “Leviathan deal with the Jenin Power Plant.” Meanwhile, Gaza Marine gas should be exported in the form of “gas sales” rather than domestic consumption. Palestinian gas would ideally be sold to Arab markets as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, with the Gaza Marine seen not “as a competitor to Israel’s fields, but rather it [sic] provides a potential additional source of gas.” 

The plan, apparently backed by the Biden administration and involving US oil giant Chevron would in effect seal Palestinian energy dependence on Israel. 

The US approach is consistent with a strategic framework described  in a December 2014 report published under the Obama administration by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Although containing the usual disclaimer that the study does not officially represent the US Government, it acknowledged aiming to influence US policymakers.

The US Army study, one of whose authors is currently a defence advisor to the UAE and was previously an advisor to the UK Ministry of Defence, points out that: “One of the most direct consequences of strained Israeli-Palestinian relations has been the lack of development of offshore gas resources discovered offshore Gaza in the late-1990s, despite the obvious economic benefits this development would have offered to the infant Palestinian economy. Israel has blocked any development of the resources since 2000 over concerns regarding the channeling of Palestinian gas revenues into alleged terror finance, supposedly funding armed attacks against the State of Israel.”

The study went on to highlight the role of the US in supporting its regional allies, especially Israel, in the case of armed conflict over control of regional energy reserves.

Noting that in Israel-Palestine “the presence of valuable natural resources in disputed territory may further feed the conflict”, the report argued that “US diplomatic and military support has a pivotal role to play in the East Mediterranean’s complex geopolitical landscape, and its importance will only grow as the value of the natural resources at stake increases.” It added: 

“US security and military support for its main allies in the case of an eruption of natural resource conflict in the East Mediterranean may prove essential in managing possible future conflict…. US support – diplomatic and, where necessary, military – can form a potentially powerful element in the safeguarding of these long-term economic benefits, at little cost in relative terms.”

Warning of the risk that particular flashpoints involving Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt could lead to a regional escalation, the report stated that “the United States also holds an important military position that could have an impact in securing the East Mediterranean,” including “military training and equipment support” to defend Cyprus and Israel from attacks on “their energy infrastructure and gas developments.”

The administration’s approval of $735 million worth of arms sales to Israel thus appears to be indelibly linked to regional energy security concerns. 

The US State Department declined to comment.


The Hamas Problem

Unsurprisingly, Hamas – which controls Gaza – rejected the legitimacy of the Israel-PA gas negotiations. 

“Gaza must be present in any understandings about the gas fields on its shores,” declared Moussa Abu Marzook, deputy chairman of Hamas’s Political Bureau, in response to the MoU. “If Gaza is forced to import natural gas from the occupation [Israel] for the only power plant in the strip, then we should not stand by while our natural resources are exported to far-off lands. We need to know the details of the agreement that was signed with the Investment Fund.” 

By March, in an indication of the Biden administration’s backing for the new gas development plans, the US was formally approved as an official observer at the EMGF. 

But in the same month, Hamas reiterated its rejection of the Gaza Marine deal. “The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah can’t, in any way, sign international agreements on behalf of the Palestinian people and their legitimate institutions,” said Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Both these Hamas officials have expressed alarming antisemitic sentiments. In 2012, Bahar had notoriously delivered a televised sermon where he prayed: “Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one and kill them all, without leaving a single one.” That same year, the other Hamas leader who had criticised the renewed gas scramble, Marzook, told the Jewish magazine Forward that Hamas would not necessarily honour any agreement between Israel and the PA, even if it was ratified by a referendum of all Palestinians. “We will not recognize Israel as a state”, he said. “It will be like the relationship between Lebanon and Israel or Syria and Israel”, in other words, an ‘armed truce’.

The Hamas response to the gas scramble thus provides some insight into how tacit US-backing for what the UN describes as the “transfer of resources” from the Palestinian economy to Israel is entirely counterproductive. It has emboldened and empowered hardline Islamists in Gaza, despite the fact that the Israeli defence establishment has long viewed Hamas’s rule in Gaza as a fundamental obstacle to allowing Palestinians to develop their own gas resources in the strip. 

In 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, I wrote in The Guardian about how then Israeli defence chief Moshe Ya’alon had a year before Operation Cast Lead had drawn a direct connection between Israeli military action in Gaza to topple Hamas and access to Palestinian gas. In a policy paper, he dismissed the notion that “Gaza gas can be a key driver of an economically more viable Palestinian state” as “misguided”:

“A gas transaction with the Palestinian Authority [PA] will, by definition, involve Hamas. Hamas will either benefit from the royalties or it will sabotage the project and launch attacks against Fatah, the gas installations, Israel – or all three… It is clear that without an overall military operation to uproot Hamas control of Gaza, no drilling work can take place without the consent of the radical Islamic movement.”

Ya’alon’s thinking was not just about Hamas, but any Palestinian control of their own resources: “The threat is not limited to Hamas… It is impossible to prevent at least some of the gas proceeds from reaching Palestinian terror groups.”

This extreme view in itself has played into the hands of Hamas, contributing to the perception that Israel will never tolerate any Palestinian access to its own energy reserves.

One day after I published this article to The Guardian website, my contract with the newspaper was terminated in an act of censorship.

Ya’alon’s musings provided insight into the thinking behind Israel’s imposition of imposed a new territorial arrangement in Gaza in response to Hamas’ ascent to power in 2006. This arrangement was consolidated following Operation Cast Lead, which as the UNCTAD study noted, involved the “militarization of the entire Gaza coastline and the confiscation of Palestinian natural gas fields, under Israeli sovereignty over Gaza’s maritime areas.” The comprehensive blockade “prevented Palestinians from developing their energy fields”, ensuring that “any access to the gas fields, and the billions of dollars they represent, has become even more difficult.” Since then, according to the UNCTAD report: 

“Gaza natural gas fields have been, in contravention of international law, de facto integrated into Israel’s offshore installations, which are contiguous to those of the Gaza Strip… These various offshore installations are also linked to Israel’s energy transport corridor, extending from the port of Eilat on the Red Sea, which is an oil pipeline terminal, to the seaport pipeline terminal at Ashkelon and northwards to Haifa.”

With Chevron’s involvement in overseeing Israel’s largest fields, however, Israel appeared to reconsider the prospect of opening up the Gaza Marine’s gas resources in collusion with the Fatah-dominated PA – which had already proven its compliance through silence in Israel’s ongoing surreptitious extraction of Palestinian gas.


Fear of Popular Palestinian Dissent

The decision may have been linked to the prospective Palestinian elections originally slated for May. A poll conducted in March by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) revealed that of all Palestinian political actors, Hamas’ popularity had by far worsened the most, with the largest percentage of Palestinians believing that Hamas would have a negative impact on improving economic conditions and removing the blockade over Gaza. 

Despite the rise in support for Fatah, however, the poll suggested that PA President Mahmoud Abbas could lose the elections – jeopardising the lucrative gas deals just signed with Israel and Egypt. “Most respondents want Marwan Barghouti president of the PA and in a trilateral election between Marwan Barghouti, Mahmoud Abbas, and Ismail Haniyyeh, the first receives 48% of the vote, the second 29% and the third 19%”, noted the PCPSR. 

Hamas declared that it was targeting some of its rocket attacks at a “Zionist gas platform” off Gaza. Since then, the group has fired dozens of rockets at the Tamar Platform operated by Chevron.

The elections, which would have likely considerably weakened both Fatah and Hamas, threatened to shift control of the PA into new hands thus undermining the spate of asymmetric Palestinian gas deals negotiated with Israel. “If this scenario were to occur, a whole class of millionaires who turned the Palestinian struggle into a lucrative industry, generously financed by ‘donor countries,’ was at risk of losing everything in favour of uncharted political territories, controlled by a prisoner, Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell”, observed Palestinian commentator Ramzy Baroud. 

By the end of April, Abbas opted to postpone the elections. Neither Israel, the US, nor Arab leaders in Jordan and Egypt involved in the EMGF opposed Abbas’ cancellation of the long awaited elections. Rather than allowing Palestinian democracy to choose a fresh leadership that could overturn decades of stale thinking – and corrupt regional gas negotiations – these governments instead chose to remain in bed with the devils they knew.

Shortly after, the escalation of violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, in turn, served to embolden both the Netanyahu regime and Hamas to the point that even Moshe Ya’alon pointed out: “The security escalation serves Netanyahu and Hamas, both for internal political reasons.”

Then on 12 May, Hamas declared that it was targeting some of its rocket attacks at a “Zionist gas platform” off Gaza. Since then, the group has fired dozens of rockets at the Tamar gas platform operated by Chevron. 

On the Palestinian side, by the time of publication at least 230 have been killed including 65 children and 38 women, with at least 1,235 injured; while in Israel, 12 civilians have been killed including two children. On both sides, the violence has revived the waning political fortunes of the extremists. While allowing Netanyahu to continue working with the corrupt but unpopular Fatah-dominated PA to push through attempts to monopolise Palestinian gas and other resources, the conflict has simultaneously granted the increasingly unpopular Hamas a new lease of life.

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