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'Water apartheid': How Israel weaponises water in the Gaza Strip

On World Water Day, the international community must not forget Palestinians living under Israeli occupation whose access to clean water is severely restricted
Children fill their bins with clean water in Gaza City, where 97 percent of water is not drinkable according to the UN, on 21 March 2023 (Reuters)

The seizure of water to drive people from their land has long served as a tool of colonial domination. That process is well advanced in the occupied West Bank where water has been controlled by Israel since its occupation began in 1967.

While Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement between Israel and Palestinians set up a Joint Water Committee, Israel retained veto power over all Palestinian water proposals and no constraints were placed on the amount of water it could take from occupied Palestinian territory.

'Water apartheid'

In 2013, the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq analysed Israel's discriminatory water practices as "Water Apartheid". Its Water for One People Only report details how Israel's command of water resources in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip promotes the displacement of the Palestinian population and represents "only one element of an irreversible structural process that can only be described as colonial".

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Israel's discriminatory water policies, which enable it to extract for its own use and that of its settlements some 90 percent of the water from the West Bank's Mountain Aquifer, and which deprive Palestinians of sufficient water for agriculture and their basic needs, are a focus of the two well-researched reports on Israeli Apartheid produced in 2022 by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Israel's weaponisation of water for the benefit of settlers and de facto annexation can be regarded as a long-standing practice of settler colonialism

These reports join many others produced over the past two decades by Palestinian and Israeli organisations, UN bodies, the World Bank, NGOs, journalists and scholars that describe how constraints imposed by military orders are steadily forcing Palestinian farmers from the 62 percent of the West Bank known as "Area C".

Farmers are prevented from drilling new wells or improving old ones, installing pumps and even collecting rainwater, where their springs are seized and their water tanks, cisterns and pipelines destroyed while settlements and roads serving "Eretz Israel" are erected on their agricultural land.

Israeli settlers consume six times the amount of water permitted to their Palestinian neighbours, who are forced to purchase expensive water extracted from the West Bank by Mekorot, the Israeli National Water Carrier, in order to overcome shortfalls in water allocation and frequent water shut-offs.

Israel's weaponisation of water for the benefit of settlers and de facto annexation can be regarded as a long-standing practice of settler colonialism. But how can one explain Israel's water policies in the Gaza Strip - one of the most densely populated places on earth - where Israel evacuated its 21 settlements in 2005?

Since then, Gazans have no longer experienced Israel's military occupation as the steady takeover of land. Instead, they have confronted an existential threat to their health and lives that Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, among others, has called "incremental genocide".

Some Israeli human rights lawyers firmly reject this application of the term. But water is life, and the impact of Israel's nearly 16-year-long blockade and five major military offensives on the severely limited clean water supply available for a rapidly growing population, half of them children, has raised questions about whether the Gaza Strip remains a "livable place" (to use the UN's phrase).

Some historical background

The Gaza Strip, just 25 miles long and four to seven miles wide, is home to 2.3 million people, 70 percent of whom are stateless refugees and their descendants living in eight refugee camps. Pushed out of what became the State of Israel in 1948, many are now caged just miles from their former homes. After the Israeli occupation began in 1967, 8,500 Israeli settlers and the military took over 20 percent of Gaza's land for their sole use. Strong resistance to their presence eventually forced their withdrawal.

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It was in a Gaza refugee camp that the unarmed first Intifada or uprising erupted late in 1987. Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged in 1988 and challenged the leadership of the secular Fatah-dominated PLO. It was classified as a terrorist group by Israel and the US for its attacks on Israeli civilians in the mid-1990s.

The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas intensified after Hamas won a majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. In 2007 Hamas prevailed in factional fighting and took control of the Gaza Strip. Then Israel, with Egypt's assistance and the backing of the US, cut the Gaza Strip off from the world, imposing a blockade that has lasted until today.

The blockade has destroyed Gaza's economy and led HRW to refer to the Gaza Strip as an "open-air prison". Its population is trapped within walls and fences and below constant drone surveillance, while Israel exerts tight control over all movement of goods and people by land and sea and from time to time engages in lethal "mowing the grass" military operations but makes no attempt to reach a political solution.

By 2021, half of the population of the impoverished Gaza Strip was unemployed. The ongoing factional split between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and the refusal of Israel and the US to deal directly with Hamas have complicated matters of governance, including the management of water resources.

Gaza's water shortage

Gaza has only one source of renewable freshwater: the Coastal Aquifer stretching from northern Israel to the northern Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Along with the aquifers beneath the West Bank, the Coastal Aquifer has been under total Israeli control since the occupation began. According to a 2013 UN study, Israel extracts 66 percent of the water of the Coastal Aquifer, while the Gaza Strip extracts 23 percent and Egypt 11 percent.

The arrival in Gaza of hundreds of thousands of refugees from what is now Israel put heavy pressure on the aquifer, and within decades residents were extracting more water than could be replenished annually. In the period 1995–2011, water extraction increased more than 30 percent, causing a decline in the level of the aquifer that allowed seawater to leach in. Israel’s deep wells, boreholes adjacent to Gaza and dams have further impacted Gaza’s water availability.

The UN in its August 2012 report stated that the aquifer might be irreversibly damaged by 2020 without a 60 percent increase in Gaza's water supply. The World Bank cited "an alarming and worsening situation in Gaza over the 2010–16 period" and found that "by 2016, access to improved drinking water in Gaza was close to zero".

By 2020, Gazans were still getting over 95 percent of their water from the polluted aquifer and extracting three times its sustainable yield, with more than a third lost because of the decrepit infrastructure. Approximately 97 percent of that groundwater was unfit to drink due to high sewage and salinity levels. Gaza’s remaining supply was produced by small unregulated desalination plants (2.6 percent) and 2 percent was purchased from the Israeli national water company Mekorot by the cash-strapped Palestinian Water Authority. Israel deducts water bills that have not been paid from the taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority.

An environmental assessment published in 2020 was particularly bleak. It found the Coastal Aquifer had been reduced to ten meters below sea level. While only 55–60 million cubic meters (mcm) could safely be taken from the aquifer, some 160–200 mcm were being extracted each year. Municipalities were only able to meet 80 percent of residents’ water needs, and piped water failed to reach homes for days at a time.

The shortage of clean water is only part of the problem. The cost of purchasing often polluted trucked water is prohibitive for many Gazans, half of whom live below the poverty line. The water they consume is well below the 100 litres per day standard for per capita domestic needs set by the World Health Organisation.

According to a press release issued by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics and the Palestinian Water Authority on World Water Day (22 March 2022), the daily per capita allocation of water for domestic use in Gaza is 86.6 litres per day. However, water suitable for human use amounts to only 26.8 litres daily. Mekorot puts Israeli per capita consumption of clean water at 230 litres per day.

Targeting Gaza's water

Exacerbating Gaza’s water problems is a wastewater treatment system battered by military strikes and fuel shortages. In 2006, missiles knocked out Gaza’s only power plant. When Israel locked down the Gaza Strip the following year, its infrastructure was in dangerous disrepair. In March 2007, the embankment of a sewage reservoir collapsed, drowning five people.

Israel’s military offensives in 2008–9, 2012, 2014, 2021 and August 2022 have killed over 4,000 people, including more than 870 children, and pulverized an already fragile infrastructure. Operation Cast Lead in 2008–9 damaged or destroyed 11 wells and four reservoirs, along with pumping stations, a sewage treatment plant, 19,920 meters of water pipes, 2,445 meters of sewage pipes, and sections of the electricity network vital for wastewater treatment. Operation Protective Edge in 2014 inflicted more damage on wells, water reservoirs, wastewater treatment plants, desalination plants and pumping stations.

During 11 days in May 2021, air strikes affected 13 water wells, three desalination plants and 250,000 meters of water pipes, reportedly including the main pipeline carrying water purchased from Mekorot. Three days of strikes in early August 2022 resulted in some damage to sections of the water network, and a fuel shortage temporarily decreased water production and delivery by more than 50 percent.

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After each military assault, Israel’s blockade has delayed the rebuilding process by months and even years, forcing Gazans to live with scant supplies of potable water and sewage flowing through the streets. In September 2014, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN set up a supposedly temporary "Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism" (GRM) to supervise the entry of construction materials while addressing Israel’s security concerns.

The GRM bureaucracy excluded "dual-use" items, meaning anything that could be put to military use by Hamas, including cement, wood, electromechanical equipment, and pipes. In 2017, there were 8,500 items on the "dual-use" list. Thousands of items not on the "dual-use" list still needed special approval, bringing the economy to a standstill.

By January 2022, Israel still had not permitted the entry of parts to repair the May 2021 wreckage of Gaza's water infrastructure. Further damage to the Coastal Aquifer was reportedly caused by the new 20-foot-high wall encircling the Gaza Strip, which penetrates deep into the ground to deter tunnel construction.

Public health consequences

By 2017, some 108,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage were being dumped into the Mediterranean every day. That summer a five-year-old died after swimming in the polluted sea. The following year, Gaza was assessed to be "on the brink of humanitarian collapse" given the "acute energy, water, and sanitation problem, which poses severe threats to public health".

More than a quarter of diseases in Gaza are water related. Numerous reports point to nitrates from wastewater pollution exceeding by six times WHO recommendations, causing a rise in cases of cyanosis. High chloride concentrations from seawater incursion into the Coastal Aquifer put pregnant women and children at special risk and contaminated water is the leading cause of child mortality.

More than a quarter of diseases in Gaza are water related. Numerous reports point to nitrates from wastewater pollution exceeding by six times WHO recommendations

One study found that 59.2 percent of a sample of children had at least one parasitic infection and a similar percentage suffered from anaemia. Cancer and kidney disease are increasingly common, with a 13 percent annual increase in patients suffering from renal failure. There have been outbreaks of communicable diseases such as acute hepatitis A, acute diarrhoea and typhoid fever. The lack of clean water makes it difficult to contain infections spread by multi-drug-resistant organisms emerging from the widespread use of antibiotics to treat patients wounded in military strikes.

Other health impacts are related to heavy metals from bombardments that stay in the soil as the blockade prevents their removal, where they contribute to the pollution of the food and water supply. Researchers associated these toxins with an increase in birth defects, in preterm and severely underweight babies, and the stunting of young children.

Along with the crumbling health service, and shortage of medical equipment, test kits and vaccines, the scarcity of clean water has impeded efforts to ward off the Covid-19 pandemic.

Collective punishment

The International Committee of the Red Cross has denounced Israel's blockade as a form of collective punishment that violates international humanitarian law. Whatever Israel's justification for maintaining a closure clamped in place over 15 years ago to compel the population to overthrow Hamas, no security argument can annul the right of a population to water.

Integral to public health and life itself, the human right to water, recognized by the UN General Assembly in 2010 (A/RES/64/292), is grounded in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

World Water Day
A Palestinian man (right) holds a placard that says in Arabic, "A drop of water equals life", during a press conference marking the occasion of World Water Day in Gaza City, on 21 March 2023 (Reuters)

Western countries that have themselves been colonizing powers have shown little interest in enforcing international humanitarian law where Israel is concerned. They have ignored the damning assessment of the impact of the blockade and GRM issued by various NGOs. They have instead sought to apply technical solutions to avert the catastrophe facing Gaza’s captive population without demanding an end to the blockade, and their pledges of aid have frequently failed to materialise.

There have, after repeated delays, been some successes in the treatment of sewage, with the result that in July 2022, 65 percent of water along Gaza's coast was deemed safe enough for swimming. In 2019, the World Bank-funded Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Project finally opened near the site where five people perished in sewage in 2007. The German-funded Gaza Central Treatment Plant built to serve a million people in the middle of the Gaza Strip became fully operational in early 2021 and long-awaited connection points to facilitate an increase of five million cubic meters of water from Mekorot were finished by the year’s end.

But the closure and collective punishment inflicted on Gaza mean that advances like these are fragile. In an effort to avoid shutdowns due to fuel and electricity shortages, a biogas plant and solar facility had been constructed at the Central Treatment Plant site. Within two months the plant was damaged during the May 2021 military offensive, and it took pressure from the German government before replacement parts for its electro-mechanical system were allowed to enter.

With the entry of fuel an endemic problem, solar panels are supplying 12 percent of the energy needed to power the EU-funded desalination plant that opened in 2017 to provide water for 75,000 people in the southern Gaza Strip. The North Gaza Seawater Desalination Plant, which was put out of action in May 2021 depriving 250,00 people of water, illustrates the risks faced by these capital-intensive projects.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Water Authority and the World Bank — with promised funding from a dozen countries, the EU and the Islamic Development Bank — are pushing ahead with the long-stalled Central Desalination Plant intended to provide water for two million people by 2030. The Donor Information Handbook prepared by the Palestinian Authority assures donors that the complicated project will meet GRM stipulations.

But in the words of ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid): "While international investment in major water infrastructure is critical, any such projects will have little long-term viability without Palestinian ability to freely import the equipment and supplies necessary for the construction and maintenance of water and sewage systems".

A forever blockade

Today the ‘temporary’ GRM has become an institutionalized part of an enduring arrangement that largely escapes criticism from donors who pay to rebuild what Israel has destroyed. Rather than pressuring Israel as the occupier to respect the human rights of Palestinians including the right to water, the international community has thrown money and technical expertise at a problem which calls for a political solution. In so doing, it is attempting to forestall calamity while acquiescing in Israel’s violations of international law.

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Israel now reportedly produces 20 percent more water than it needs. But that water is not being made available to water-starved Gaza, which is also barred from accessing West Bank aquifers. And without significant external pressure, things are unlikely to change. In an effort to mend relations with Fatah and open the door to negotiations with Israel, Hamas amended its charter in 2017 to offer Israel a long-term truce. But Israel rejected the revised document before it was published, preferring to see all of Gaza as a "hostile entity" closed off from the world.

Genocide, wrote Ralph Lemkin, who coined the term, "refers to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight".

If that blight is to be averted in the Gaza Strip, the international community must immediately end its complicity in the collective punishment of the Palestinian people and pressure Israel to lift its blockade.

This column was first posted on Medium.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Nancy Murray
Nancy Murray, PhD, has taught in universities and worked on human rights issues in the UK and Kenya as well as in the US, where for 25 years she was Director of Education at the ACLU of Massachusetts. She is the author of Palestinians: Life Under Occupation and book chapters on Israel/Palestine and has made some 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1988. She is the co-founder of the Gaza Mental Health Foundation and a member of the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine.
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