“Oil. Religion. Occupation. ... A Combustible Mix.”
A Freedom of Information request with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) by Al-Shabaka has led to the release of new documents on Gaza’s gas fields, and surprising new information about the possibility of oil fields in the West Bank. The released documents support Al-Shabaka’s previous policy brief The Gas Fields off Gaza: A Gift or a Curse?, which argued that the principal stumbling block to the development of the gas fields in Gaza is Israel’s refusal to pay market price for the gas. The new documents reveal that, in addition, Israel may be exploiting an oil field located near Ramallah within the occupied Palestinian territories. The documents also address rumours that there may be two other oil fields near Qalqilya and another near Hebron. Al-Shabaka Program Director Victor Kattan dissects the correspondence and its implications.
What the Documents Say About Oil
Under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, the FCO released seven documents to the author after a lengthy eight-month process of repeated requests. The documents had been carefully vetted and the names of the individuals who sent and received the emails were redacted. Four of the emails released were between the FCO in London and the British Consulate General in Jerusalem. Two e-grams were released from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv (including one from Matthew Gould, the British Ambassador to Israel) to the FCO in London, and a parliamentary letter from Ivan Lewis MP.
As some of the frank email exchanges released by the FCO admit, an independent Palestinian state could be economically self-sufficient and less reliant on aid once freed of Israeli control over Palestinian natural resources. Beyond the proceeds from taxation, a free and sovereign Palestine could raise money from a plethora of other economic activities from tourism to exporting natural gas, and if the documents released from the FCO are to be believed, from oil fields located in the West Bank.
The previously undisclosed information refers to the possibility of a Palestinian petroleum sector. One of the documents released by the FCO was an internal email within the British Consulate General in Jerusalem dated 13 January 2012. According to this document, “two Norwegian consultants … are doing a scoping study for a potential [redacted] to build up the capacity of the Palestinians to manage a petroleum sector. This involves looking at the political and commercial context as well as asking whether the Palestinians had a petroleum sector.”
The Norwegian consultants went to see a drilling site variously described as being on the Green Line or in the seam zone just North West of Ramallah near a village called Rantis. According to the email correspondence, the Norwegian consultants said that:
- "They could not be sure that any oil field extended below the West Bank. But the strong likelihood is that it did (otherwise why drill so close to the Green Line).
- They had seen “flaring” at the site. While they could not get close enough to make a definite judgment, such “flaring” was normally indicative of drilling for exploration at the least, or more usually extraction itself.
- They had been informed by their Palestinian interlocutors that the drilling was actually being carried out by a Jewish religious organisation and that there was allegedly a theological as well as commercial rationale for the current activity.
- They had also heard of a further oil discovery in the Southern West Bank, near Hebron.”
Although it is not clear from the disclosed correspondence, it would seem that Israel has actually established a drilling facility in one of the settlements close to the Green Line i.e. the line separating Israel from the West Bank which it captured in the June 1967 War.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) appears to be seriously examining petroleum resources in the occupied territories. According to Mahir Ghneim, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of State and a senior Fatah official, the PA is conducting studies to see if they can drill for oil. Apparently, when the West Bank was under Jordanian control, drilling took place in Bir Zeit, near Ramallah, and in as-Samu, south of Hebron. “The results were not encouraging because of the low price of oil at the time, but extracting oil is easier now,” the minister said.