Israel is pillaging not just Gaza’s cities but also its waters

Foreign companies, including European ones, are helping Israel loot Gaza’s natural gas reserves. They must be stopped.

An Israeli gas platform is seen as an Israeli Navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean off the coast of Ashkelon, Israel November 14, 2023 REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An Israeli gas platform is seen as an Israeli navy vessel patrols in the Mediterranean off the coast of Ashkelon on November 14, 2023 [File: Reuters/Amir Cohen]

Over the past few months, appalling videos have emerged from the conflict zone in Gaza of Israeli troops looting the properties of Palestinians who have fled their brutal aggression. Soldiers can be seen smiling to the camera and showing off watches, jewellery, cash, and even carpets and sports jerseys that they had stolen from Palestinian homes. Historical artefacts stolen from Gaza have even been put on display at the Knesset.

While similar acts of looting by Russian soldiers in Ukraine were well-documented and mocked, international media has hardly paid attention to the Israeli pillaging of Gaza.

Some may find it hard to believe that the well-paid soldiers of a rich country would engage in such crimes, but to the people of Palestine, this is hardly surprising. The scenes in these videos are highly reminiscent of what Palestinians saw happen to their properties as they fled ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces in the 1948 Nakba.

As Israeli historian Adam Raz describes in his recent book, Looting of Arab Property in the War of Independence, Jewish fighters and civilians looted everything from jewellery, books, and embroidered gowns to food and livestock to furniture, kitchenware and even floor tiles.

Once established, the state of Israel continued to steal on a greater scale from the Palestinians, taking their land and property. Palestinian natural resources, particularly water, have also been looted. Today, the war in Gaza is serving as a convenient cover for another theft on a grand scale; this time Israel is seeking to plunder the maritime offshore gas reserves that are the property of the state of Palestine.

In late October, the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure announced that it had awarded concessions for natural gas exploration to Israeli and foreign companies in zones that significantly overlap with the maritime borders of Gaza.

Needless to say, Israel as an occupier has no right to award licences in areas that it does not hold sovereignty over under any circumstances.

Palestine is a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and has declared its maritime boundaries in accordance with these principles.

Israel has not signed UNCLOS. It also does not recognise the state of Palestine and has recently doubled down on this position with a vote in the Knesset to “oppose a unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state” despite growing calls globally, including from the US, its main sponsor, for a two-state solution.

The combination of these positions has given Israel the excuse for not recognising the maritime borders of Palestine and for expropriating the resources in these areas. These Israeli claims, of course, do not make its actions legal.

One has to wonder why foreign companies, including Italian Eni, British BP and Dana Petroleum, a subsidiary of Korea National Oil Corporation, have decided to continue their participation in this deal, particularly amid the continuing Israeli campaign of what the International Court of Justice has identified as a plausible case of genocide.

On February 8, four human rights organisations in Israel and Palestine – Adalah, Al Mezan, Al-Haq, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights issued a joint news release regarding the awarded gas exploration licences in the occupied waters of Palestine.

They announced that they have sent a letter to the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, demanding that the award and the related tender be cancelled. They also said they have sent legal notices to Eni, Dana Petroleum and Israeli Ratio Petroleum, asking them not to undertake any activities related to the licences.

“You should be aware that the International Criminal Court currently has an active investigation open into international crimes committed in territory of the State of Palestine, and has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute any individual(s) it finds responsible for committing war crimes, including pillage. Complicity in war crimes like pillage is also a serious criminal offence and corporate actors can be subject to individual criminal liability … Complicity in violations of [international humanitarian law] can also expose companies like yours – and your managers and staff – to the risk of civil actions for damages,” the notices warned.

Apart from the illegality of the gas tender under international law, it is important to point out here the involvement of Eni, a European company. Its engagement with the Israeli gas exploration project contradicts the longstanding EU position that “all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967”.

The Israeli announcement of the awarded licences was made a bit more than a year after the EU signed on June 15, 2022, a memorandum of understanding with the Egyptian and Israeli energy ministers on regional cooperation on gas extraction. This came just a few months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and amid the EU’s scramble to divest from Russian gas.

Interestingly, the MoU omitted the territoriality clause that the EU is committed to include in order to protect Palestinian territories and waters from being exploited through illegal activity. Members of the European Parliament raised this question to the EU Commission a week after the signing of the MoU.

The answer from the EU Commission dismissed the importance of the omission with a rather technical point – claiming that the MoU was of a non-binding nature and therefore “no territorial clause on the applicability is deemed necessary. Nevertheless … the implementation of such Memorandum of Understanding will not apply in any form to the occupied Palestinian territory, which entails that Israeli supplies of natural gas as per the implementation of the memorandum of understanding may not originate from resources appropriated from Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.”

In this context, there are two questions worth posing to the EU Commission: Did this omission encourage the violation of Palestinian rights by Israel and what will be the fate of Eni’s involvement in the project?

This development also comes at a critical time when EU countries have taken highly problematic stances on the war in Gaza, supporting the “right to self-defence” of an occupier against the occupied and sending weapons to the occupying forces.

Furthermore, EU states have suspended financial support for UNRWA, practically the only lifeline for people in Gaza who are experiencing famine.

While the recent stance taken by the West against the violent, illegal settlers in the West Bank is a step in the right direction, failure to stem the blatant attempts by Israel to pillage Palestinian resources with the help of European companies will further entrench the growing cynicism in the Global South about the duplicity of the West when it comes to the application of the international law.

The EU could right some of the wrongs it has committed by helping the Palestinians exploit their natural resources. Amid the rumblings on the post-conflict reconstruction of Gaza and who should foot the bill, it is important to consider the ample gas resources in Gazan waters as a significant financial resource that can be used to secure a prosperous future for the Palestinian people. The EU can play a key role in assisting the Palestinians in developing and benefitting from these resources, as is their sovereign right.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.