Is Israel at war in Gaza to exploit Palestinian oil and gas reserves?

By November 9, 2023 International Politics

We came across the following post on a Singapore-based Telegram channel with over 4,300 members:

The post includes a link to an article on the website The European Union Times with the headline ‘Massive Oil and Gas Reserves Discovered Under Gaza’. This is accompanied by a caption that suggests the war in Gaza is ‘all about natural gas and maritime trade’.

Though the name of the European Union Times suggests it has some links to EU institutions, a check on the media bias monitoring resource Media Bias/Fact Check revealed that it was a publication that had a track record of posting far-right conspiracy theories and promoting hatred towards immigrants, minorities and Jews. The publication also hinted at espousing some form of Nazi ideology, and its ownership was hidden from public view.

The EU Times article claimed that ‘since the war started, Israel has already awarded a dozen oil and gas exploration licenses in Palestine to six different Big Oil companies, including BP’. ‘They’re going to explore exactly where those Palestinian oil reserves are located, off the coast’, the article claims.

The EU Times links these claims to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report from 2019 that ‘criticizes Israel for preventing Palestinians from developing (their oil and gas reserves) as a way to alleviate their massive poverty’.

The article goes on to claim that the US had proposed an ‘international coalition of western governments to preside over Gaza once Israel pushes its 2 million inhabitants into Egypt’, and that there were ‘similar plans underway for the West Bank’. The suggestion is that the war and these actions would allow Israel and its allies to appropriate Palestinian natural resources in Gaza.

Untapped Gas Reserves in Gaza

We looked into the claims of Gaza having untapped natural resources and found that this was true. We located the report by UNCTAD cited by the EU Times, titled ‘The Economic Costs of the Israeli Occupation for the Palestinian People: The Unrealized Oil and Natural Gas Potential’.

The UNCTAD report states that a large gas field named Gaza Marine had been discovered off the coast of Gaza in 1999 by BG Group (BGG), which had been contracted by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA, also known as Palestinian Authority/PA). The reserves were estimated at 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with an estimated value of US$4.592 billion.

According to the report, while Israel initially recognised PNA’s jurisdiction over the first oil well drilled in the field, and granted BGG security authorisation to drill it, the extraction of gas from the field subsequently became bogged down by political unwillingness among some Israeli leaders to buy gas from Gaza.

The situation became complicated further when Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006 then took full control of the Gaza Strip from the PNA in 2007 in a short-lived conflict.

Hostilities between Hamas and Israel eventually led to the Gaza War of 2008, when the entirety of Gaza’s maritime areas was brought under Israel’s control and militarised. Gaza Marine, the natural gas field, was confiscated by Israel as part of the military occupation.

Production activities at the field have not been restored since that time. However, Reuters reported in July 2023 that Israel had given preliminary approval for development of the gas field but wanted security coordination with the PNA in return, with the details yet to be worked out.

Licence to Explore, but Where?

We confirmed through a web search that Israel had awarded gas exploration licences after the recent war in Gaza had begun. The 12 licences were won by six companies, including major international oil and gas companies such as BP, Italy’s Eni, and SOCAR of Azerbaijan.

An infographic released by the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure of Israel, published in the Times of Israel, showed where the exploration zones were located without relation to the region’s maritime borders.

When compared with recent maps of gas production in eastern Mediterranean by the non-governmental groups International Crisis Group and European Council on Foreign Relations, it becomes clear that the licences were for the exploration of Israeli maritime territory, rather than relating to Gaza’s maritime area or the Gaza Marine gas field.

Factual Elements, False Conclusion

While the headline of the EU Times article is therefore accurate, if outdated, the author appears to have conflated two unrelated issues. The oil and gas exploration licences have not been granted for exploration in Palestinian territory, and they have nothing to do with production at the Gaza Marine gas field.

The claim that the US had proposed an ‘international coalition of western governments to preside over Gaza’ is also erroneous. The US has instead proposed that the territory come under the governance of the PNA, and if that were not possible, ‘temporary arrangements’ that would involve ‘a number of other countries in the region’ or international agencies.

The EU Times article distorts and embellishes separate facts while drawing spurious links between them. It is therefore false that Gaza’s gas resources are an objective in the war, and that Israel has awarded oil and gas exploration licences in Palestinian territory as part of the war.

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