(Priya Singh is a Research Scholar at the University of Calcutta and a commentator on West Asian Politics. She can be reached at email@example.com)
"Israel is returning to its historic role, as a transit country, as a bridge between continents, where historic trade routes passed through." *
The Mediterranean has been in the headlines since last year. It has witnessed an assertive Russian policy, instability in the Arab world, which resulted in a massive exodus of refugees via the Mediterranean from the Arab countries to Greece and Italy. Yet, the continuous political instability, together with the economic recession in China, is likely to result in a slower pace in investment in critical infrastructure such as port facilities, in most Eastern Mediterranean countries. Nevertheless, the significance of the region in this age of heightened awareness in the strategic and security aspects of the global maritime field cannot be ignored. Non-state actors now pose a security threat to the region and even though most of the combating occurs on the ground or through aerial bombings, they have proven their capacity to attack naval platforms. Parts of the East Mediterranean sea have been subject to divergent sovereignty claims, over zones of exclusive economic interests (EEZ), e.g., the dispute between Israel and Lebanon and between Turkey and Cyprus. The recent gas discoveries in the Mediterranean are likely to aggravate existing conflicts over demarcation of maritime borders in the region. Two of the leading fleets in the region, of Israel and Egypt have affirmed major naval acquisitions in 2015. The Israeli public has displayed unparalleled interest in diverse aspects of the sea in recent years, including plans to deepen and enlarge the volume of its existing merchant ports. It is in this context that Haifa, as a port city within Israel assumes significance in terms of offering an access to the Mediterranean.
Haifa (Arabic, Hayfa and Hebrew, Hefa), situated in the North of Israel, a thriving Mediterranean port city, is the third largest city and the main harbour of Israel. In the historical sense, the origins of Haifa date back to around 3,000 years and in terms of literary historiography, the most noteworthy allusion to Haifa is to be found in Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, a utopian novel written in 1902 wherein Haifa is of immense consequence to the envisaged ‘New Society’ in Eretz Israel (Land of Israel). As a port city, it is the gateway by way of which the principal characters, and with them the readers, are familiarised with the idealistic society in Eretz Israel of the future. In this work of fiction, Haifa is imagined as a perfect urban space, personifying, both in terms of space and in a social context, the intrinsic worth of the idyllic new Jewish society: a fair, progressive, democratic, and multi-ethnic society deeply entrenched in the territory of the ancient land, symbolising both modernity and enlightenment. Haifa’s status as a modern industrialized city reaping benefits out of the globalisation of the twentieth century has shaped its current position and opportunities and in contemporary literature it is perceived as an embodiment of spatial and cultural heterogeneity, diversity and coexistence.
It was in the 1920s that the British Mandate began the construction of a deep water port in Haifa, and in 1933 the port was officially opened. Haifa’s strategic setting prompted the British to opt for it as the site for a number of enterprises that connected Palestine to the rest of the British Empire. The most significant being the Haifa port and the Palestine railways. The Haifa port with its deep-water harbour secured the entrance of the empire to the east, and the passage to the Suez Canal from the north. It also served to connect Europe with Palestine and the Middle East, and was the primary waterway for the transit of both people and cargo. The port personified the spirit of the city and enabled Haifa to flourish. In 1936, the city had a population of over 100,000. The port was a gateway for thousands of immigrants who fled to Israel in the wake of the Second World War. With the Mediterranean as its Western border and the eastern borders quarantined by its Arab neighbours, Haifa provided for a critical gateway to the rest of the world, and facilitated Israel’s emergence as an economic power.
The modern port of Haifa is situated in a natural, safe and sheltered bay as such there is unhindered and unrestricted entry and exit for vessels all through the year. It is in close proximity to the busiest shipping route in the world, from and to the Suez Canal. Its construction and foundation enables the shipping and transportation of all categories of ship and cargo, including docking services for large passenger liners. From the creation of the state of Israel until 2005, the Haifa Port was directly under the control of the Israeli government. In 2005, the government-owned Haifa Port Company became the official port operator. The Port of Haifa has multiple cargo terminals, and is competent to service several ships concurrently. There is a railroad freight terminal within the port that is used for transporting goods across the country. The Haifa port is regarded as one of the favourite ports of call for the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet; accounting for approximately 50 percent of all its visits in the Eastern Mediterranean region. An average of 20 US warships, as well as aircraft carriers, stopover at the port every year, primarily to exploit the harbour’s repair and servicing amenities. One of the unexpected and remarkable consequences of Syrian civil war has been the increasing use of Israel as a passage for trade between Europe and the Arab world. It makes sense to use Haifa as a hub between Europe and the Arab world as the routes from Haifa in Israel to Jordan, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia are much faster and economical. In the past, this route was used by the Ottoman and British empires till the creation of the state of Israel.
In 2012, according to a report published by the OECD, (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Haifa’s container port was ranked as the fourth most efficient port in the world. In the same year, the Israel Port Authority proposed and designed an ambitious plan for the expansion of the Haifa port at an estimated cost of approximately 4 billion US dollars. The envisaged plan aims to dramatically alter the appearance of the city and the Haifa bay albeit coming under severe criticisms over concerns regarding its environmental consequences. In May 2015, the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) signed an agreement with Israel to develop and run the new Haifa port for the next 25 years. According to the contract, SIPG will invest around 2 billion US dollars in constructing port facilities and installing equipment at the port.
Haifa in present times, like any other urban space within contemporary Israel is dealing with the complexities, ruptures and fault-lines both within the Jewish society and the sizeable Arab minority. The reality is far removed from the envisaged utopia of Herzl’s Altneuland. Yet, Haifa, the port city of Israel is perceived as an enclave that due to its inherent strategic setting epitomizes extraordinary potential, which may not be found in the rest of the Israeli space.
*Yael Ravia-Zadok, head of the Middle Eastern Economic Affairs Bureau in Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
The piece on Haifa (The Haifa Port: A Mediterranean Gateway) has benefited from the research on Kolkata as a Logistical Hub with Special Reference to the Kolkata Port, by Iman Mitra. This research was part of the Calcutta Research Group- Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung research project on A Social Mapping of Infrastructure, Logistics and India’s Look East Policy that was presented at a Research Workshop on 1 September 2016 at Kolkata. The Haifa port has been dealt with in terms of its geo-political setting, history and infrastructure, which is along the lines in which the essay on Kolkata port has been structured.