13.05.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Port of Eilat Cries Out for Help and Freedom of Global Shipping

Port of Eilat

Military conflict usually begins with violations of international law and leads to disregard of all norms and conventions. Alas, the “laws” of war have their own logic, when some attack without considering the tragedy of masses of civilians and without choosing humane weapons, while others are forced to defend themselves by any means necessary to save their lives.

In today’s turbulent world, when the foundations of the former world order and global security have been shaken, the institutions of international law often lose strength and prove ineffective in the face of the threat of local and regional conflicts. Thus the latest Palestinian-Israeli war has become evidence of the inaction, if not destruction, of international norms in the face of war crimes by Israel and international terrorism by anti-Israeli forces.

However, any war relies on the economy, undermining the economy and raising hopes for economic growth in the future. In other words, the conflicting party cannot fight without sufficient financial and material resources for a long period of time (and it does not matter whether it relies on its own capabilities or on external aid). Every war leads to physical and material losses and destruction, millions and billions of monetary units are thrown into the “furnace of death” every day, wartime laws limit the possibilities of production and social development, as gold and foreign exchange reserves go into the “sand.” The victorious outcome of the war gives the victor hopes for economic development through new material and territorial acquisitions, reparations and improved geopolitical positions in the regional and global arena.

Israel is quite small geographically, surrounded by the Arab (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt) world. One of the geographical advantages of the Jewish state is its access to the sea basin (to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to the Red Sea in the south-east) and its ability to develop an active foreign trade. Accordingly, access to the sea and important world trade communications contributes to Israel’s security, helps it to withstand military conflict and receive the necessary external (military and economic) aid.

Eilat, Ashdod and Haifa are Israel’s major seaports, which in fact provide an active link to the outside world through booming trade. Of course, important communications under war conditions are the main targets of enemy attacks and sabotage. The IDF General Staff in past wars, for objective reasons (in particular, limited spatial and human capabilities compared to the likely enemy), usually relied on short-term war tactics, i.e. blitzkrieg. Apparently, however, given Israel’s economic prosperity and military-technological modernization, and betting on the confident support of the US, the UK, France and the rest of NATO, Tel Aviv has decided to make changes in the tactics of its wars as well.

As a result, today we are witnessing a rather protracted war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has lasted for more than six months and has been devastating. B. Netanyahu is not accepting calls from the rest of the world (including his main allies) to stop fighting, is trying to eliminate the impossible (i.e., all of Hamas) and fully occupy the Gaza Strip. Well, since Hamas units remain combat-ready, refuse to surrender, and are supported by anti-Israeli militant groups of predominantly pro-Iranian persuasion (Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiites in Syria and Iraq), the fighting continues.

The serious economic damage to Israel during these war months is not so much the limited trade sanctions of the same Turkey and the countries of the Arab East, but the subversive war of the Houthis in the Red Sea basin and the Gulf of Aden. In fact, the Houthis, through their actions, have paralyzed world maritime trade through the Suez Canal.

And in this context, the Port of Eilat, Israel’s southern maritime gateway, which is used mainly for trade with Australia and East Asian countries (especially China, India, South Korea and Singapore), is particularly hard hit. As a result of rocket attacks and continued threats by the Houthis against Western and Israeli commercial vessels passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, Eilat has been forced to idle, with virtually all export and import operations suspended.

Gideon Golber, the Director General of the Port of Eilat, recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that the movement of commercial vessels to Eilat completely stopped when the Houthi attacks began. “Every month,” Golber noted, “we had between 12 and 13 ships coming and going, and now we have 0.” Only two ships have called at the port since the end of November 2023.

Eilat, a city with an ancient history dating back to the time of King Solomon, had previously relied on tourism for its development before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the crisis forced to look for other sources of income, so the port became the main source of income for the city with almost 60 thousand inhabitants.

The Port of Eilat’s main imports are cars, most of which are imported from South Korea and China. However, with the disruption of international trade, the number of these cars is rapidly decreasing, including from warehousing. Israel also imports cattle and sheep (up to 150,000 head) through Eilat, and Israeli exports through the port include monthly shipments of 1.8 to 2 million tons of potash from the Dead Sea, mainly to India and China. Now Israel has to take a longer route across the Mediterranean Sea and the Cape of Good Hope in North Africa to export goods.

The revenues of the Port of Eilat are not just rapidly declining, they are ceasing. In order to maintain its workforce (over 170 employees), the port authority has to turn to the authorities for help. Golber notes in this regard: “We are still paying salaries, we are paying taxes, we are paying for electricity, we are paying a lot of things. The port’s expenses stand at 6 million to 10 million shekels ($1.6 million to $2.7 million) a month while income is close to zero. We sent some letters to the government and the Transportation Ministry to see what we could do. Still, we haven’t gotten any answer. Great efforts are being made to keep the port open.” In November and December, the port was still receiving government support, but this support did not even cover staff salaries.

Thus, the material damage caused by the Houthis’ actions to the Port of Eilat is evident. Of course, one could say that this monthly loss of $1.6-2.7 million to the Eilat seaport is unlikely to significantly affect the security of all of Israel if the US is providing tens of billions of dollars in aid to Tel Aviv. In general, over the entire history of the Jewish state since 1948, the United States has provided Israel with a combined $270bn in military and economic aid. With the start of the current war between Hamas and Israel, Washington has already provided Tel Aviv with $14bn in aid in November 2023, and in April 2024, the US House of Representatives approved a bill for more than $26bn in aid to the Israelis. In other words, in six months of fighting in the Gaza Strip, the US has provided more than $40bn in combined aid to Israel. Israel can be considered the 51st state of the United States.

Nevertheless, the ongoing war with Hamas and pro-Palestinian forces is taking a heavy toll on Israel and its allies (just consider the recent Iranian air attack on Jewish State military installations on the night of April 13-14, which cost the IDF Air Defense Forces and their allies $1.3 billion and the depletion of a significant number of defense assets).

Israel recognizes the urgent need for the swift restoration of freedom of navigation through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and calls on its allies (primarily the United States, the UK, France, Italy and Germany) to form a coalition – a large flotilla – to militarily suppress the “maritime piracy” of the Houthis. At the same time, the Israelis remind the world that the aggression of the Houthis is causing material damage not only to the Port of Eilat, but to the entire world economy and trade.

Israel has many specialists in international law and trade (e.g. Professor Hassan Khalilieh of the University of Haifa). They rightly recall the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (in particular Part III on rules of navigation through straits), historical facts about the problems of freedom of commercial navigation through Middle Eastern straits (including the Egyptian blockade of the Strait of Tiran in 1950 and 1967, the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Turkish regulation of the Bosporus and Dardanelles during the Cold War and in the ongoing special military operation).

The Director General of the Port of Eilat, Gideon Golber, is calling on the international community to take decisive action, otherwise inaction will set a dangerous precedent allowing various actors to blockade other straits around the world, thereby jeopardizing the freedom of global navigation without repercussions.

The Israeli experts are all correct in their assessments. The problem is that an appeal to international law must be mutually acceptable to both Israeli and Palestinian interests. If Tel Aviv sees in international law only the defense of its own interests as just, but ignores similar interests and denies this right to Palestinians, then an insurmountable contradiction arises and the conflict continues in a new circle.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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