Even before the 50-day military confrontation this summer between Israel and Hamas, the water situation for the 1.7 million Palestinians who live in Gaza was desperate.
According to UNICEF, more than 90 per cent of the water extracted from the territory’s sole aquifer was unsafe for human consumption; an estimated four-fifths of the water sold by private vendors there was contaminated. Additionally, nearly 100,000 cubic meters of wastewater were discharged into the sea every day because sewage treatment plants in Gaza were overwhelmed.
The war has made the situation much worse. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently reported that Israeli air strikes destroyed much of the already inadequate sewage network and damaged the territory’s sole power plant. Desalination and water delivery systems were also severely impacted.
I am not questioning here Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket attacks, nor the fact that Hamas fighters take refuge among the civilian population. This article is not about casting blame. It is about finding solutions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who visited Gaza last week, said that almost half a million Gazans do not have access to the municipal water supply. Others put the number as high as 1.2 million.
Raw sewage now flows through the streets to the sea, creating a massive new hazard to public health, not just for Palestinians but also for Israelis because tides and groundwater do not recognize international borders.
Today, the waters that lap the sunny beaches of Ashkelon are increasingly contaminated with Gaza’s raw sewage. A regional outbreak of typhoid or cholera would put at risk the people of Israel and Egypt as well as Gaza, and health officials believe such a pandemic is a real possibility. The health of children is especially threatened.
Currently, potable water flows from Israel to Gaza through two pipelines. A third pipeline has been constructed but has not been turned on. Israel could turn the lever tomorrow and double the flow of clean, potable water to Gaza.
This action is being held up pending broader negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the terms of a complex permanent cease-fire. A lot has been said and written since the summer fighting ended about concrete steps that could be taken to improve the lot of Gaza residents to wean them away from Hamas terrorism.
Well, here is one thing that could and should be done immediately: Israel should open the third pipe now without waiting for the final agreement. This is a humanitarian action that in no way threatens the safety of a single Israeli. The opposite is the case. This is a move that will protect Israelis against a potent health threat and mitigate the despoiling of Israeli coastal waters and beaches.
Gidon Bromberg, Israel Director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East has also called on Israel to urgently deliver fuel and more generators to Gaza “to help operate what exists of Gaza’s inadequate sanitation system.” A new wastewater treatment plant financed by the World Bank at Beit Lahia could come online if Israel only delivered the power to operate it. It should do so.
Here is a cause that all supporters of Israel should be able to rally behind. It has no implications for borders, final status negotiations, settlements, the right to the land or control of holy sites. It is about delivering the most basic requirement for life, namely clean water, to people who need it. n
The author is vice president of communications for J Street.