GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A deal on ending the monthlong Gaza war could hinge on a seaport for the territory on the Mediterranean coast that is blockaded by Israel and Egypt.
The Palestinians want to build such a port, saying Gaza needs its own gate to the world, while Israel says it cannot allow unfettered sea access unless Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas group agrees to disarm. Hamas has rejected such demands.
The issue is a main point of contention in this week's Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo on a long-term truce, including new border arrangements for Gaza.
A seaport controlled by the Palestinians could transform the lives of Gaza's 1.8 million people who have been unable to freely trade and travel since Israel and Egypt imposed tight border restrictions in response to a Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007.
Only about 13,000 Gaza residents with special clearance, such as medical patients and traders, are able to leave the territory each month through land crossings with Israel and Egypt. Virtually all exports from Gaza are banned.
Gaza once came close to getting its own port.
In July 2000, construction began on a $73 million port near Gaza City, but the project was derailed after the outbreak of a major round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting two months later.
If the go-ahead were given now, the port could be built in two years, said Ali Shaath, a Palestinian official in charge of the original project. As envisioned then, it could handle about 100,000 tons of cargo and about 1,000 passengers a day.
The latest round of Cairo talks is to last at least until midnight Wednesday, when a three-day cease-fire expires.
The Gaza war erupted July 8, following weeks of escalating tensions. Since then, Israel has launched close to 5,000 airstrikes against what it said were targets linked to Hamas and other militant groups, while Gaza militants fired more than 3,500 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. The fighting killed close to 2,000 people in Gaza, nearly one-fourth children, Palestinian and United Nations officials say. Israel lost 67 people, all but three soldiers, official say.
The Palestinian delegation, which includes members of Hamas as well as loyalists of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, says any deal must include a complete opening of Gaza's borders.
This would include the construction of a seaport and the rebuilding of Gaza's international airport. The airport operated for three years, until 2001, when Israeli attacked the radar tower — as part of Israeli-Palestinian fighting at the time — and forced it to shut down. Several years later, the airport was destroyed in Israeli attacks.
Building the two ports is pivotal in any deal because they would bring "massive change" for Gaza, a Palestinian negotiator said.
The Israeli team told Egyptian mediators that the disarming of Gaza's militant groups is a prerequisite for building the seaport and airport, under third-party supervision, said another member of the Palestinian delegation. He said Israel instead offered an easing of the restrictions, including allowing more imports to Gaza.
An Israel official confirmed that Israel links any port construction to militants giving up their weapons.
All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the content of the negotiations with journalists.
Construction of both the seaport and the airport were agreed on during Israeli-Palestinian talks on interim peace deals in the 1990s.
Shaath, the Palestinian official, said that by 1999, the Palestinian self-rule government had lined up European funding for the seaport, including money from the French and Dutch governments. Security arrangements for the port were to be worked out in subsequent talks with Israeli officials.
In July 2000, European contractors arrived, setting up at a site south of Gaza City, and began work on a wave breaker. Two month later, the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted, quickly escalating into a major round of fighting. By spring of 2001, the contractors pulled out amid concerns for their safety, and Israel's military leveled the site, Shaath said.
Shaath said the port plans could be dusted off quickly in the event of a political agreement.
"It's a matter of a few months to be on the ground," he said.
Avi Yerushalmi, a senior official in Israel's Transport Ministry, said that even if a Gaza port was built, it would not be able to service larger container vessels. Those would continue docking at Israel's Ashdod port to the north, he said.
He said that for now, "the only consideration, the relevant one, is the security issue."
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Cairo contributed to this report.