RAMALLAH: The Israeli government is conducting “secret talks” with the Palestinian Authority to extract gas from a field off the coast of the Gaza Strip — known as Gaza Marine — with the consent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, regional sources have confirmed.
The sources indicated that the Israeli government held internal discussions regarding the gas field — which is 36 km from the Gaza coast in the Mediterranean — after it was formed at the end of last year.
The talks were renewed as part of the political and security process that began recently between Israel and the PA, with US mediation, said the sources.
They added that the issue of developing the Gaza Marine field and preparing it for gas extraction was at the heart of the talks that took place during meetings in Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh.
These talks brought together security and political officials from the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the US. Jordan and Egypt also reportedly joined the discussions.
The Israeli side is led by Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Israeli National Security Council, and Ghassan Olyan, coordinator of government operations in the occupied territories.
Israel believes the step will benefit the Palestinians economically, which may contribute to reducing security tension in the long run, said the sources. They added that extracting gas from Gaza Marine would be “subject to Israeli approval.”
The sources also said that “complications” had been raised by the Israeli side, as they claim only states have the right to manage gas fields legally.
The solution to this impasse is for Egypt to sponsor the gas extraction project because the PA cannot do it alone, the Israelis say.
The sources revealed that Israeli-Egyptian talks on the matter were held recently with the participation of senior officials.
The Palestinian Investment Fund signed an agreement with the Contractors’ Association with Egypt’s EGAS in February 2021 to cooperate in developing the Gaza Marine gas field.
Israel has informed the PA and the US and Egyptian sides, “through several channels,” of the resumption of internal Israeli talks on the matter. The Egyptian and US sides support the project despite some Palestinian skepticism.
The Palestinians say they own the Gaza Marine field, discovered at the end of the 1990s.
Gas has not been extracted from it due to the Israeli rejection of Palestinian requests to exploit it.
The sources believe that there are “security challenges” in completing the project.
Acording to an Israeli assessment, “Hamas will not stand idly by, so the central question is how to develop” the gas field, and there is an Israeli fear that any such step may provoke public criticism.
The field was initially developed in 2000 by British Gas, which left it for the benefit of Royal Dutch Shell, which subsequently left in 2018.
The reserves in the field are estimated at 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 32 billion cubic meters — equivalent to a production capacity of 1.5 billion cubic meters annually for 20 years.
Last October, a well-informed Palestinian source denied the existence of any Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli agreement to extract gas from the Gaza Marine field.
The source also said that the consultations at that time took place between the Palestinians and the Egyptians without the participation of the Israeli side as “we will not pay Israel to extract what belongs to us. This is unacceptable ... and what is required of Israel is only not to obstruct the work.”
The Palestinian government had formed a ministerial committee to follow up with the Palestinian Investment Fund to complete an agreement with Egypt to finance and operate the field.
The gas extraction project is an essential strategic scheme for the PA, which has suffered a severe financial crisis since November 2021.
Palestinian economic expert Samir Hulileh told Arab News that the annual income from Gaza Marine — if operated — will be between $700 million to $800 million. This will be equivalent to $7 billion to $8 billion within 10 years.
Hulileh added that there would be no gas pipeline extension to the Israeli city of Ashdod, but rather to the Egyptian city of Al-Arish, where the gas would be processed and sold, along with Egyptian gas, to Europe.
A high-ranking official source in the PA told Arab News: “If the gas is extracted, it will be an important source of income for the PA’s treasury and reduce its water deficit, which will reach $605 million by the end of this year.”