The Gaza water crisis
By Pinhas Inbari
The latest round of fighting in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, has shown that Israel cannot risk the threat of the Gaza Strip chock-full of missiles threatening the citizens of Israel and constantly disrupting the country's routine. Israel's strategic goal is to disarm Hamas. That does not mean eradicating Hamas rule; there is no certainty that the replacement would be preferable. Hamas is a problem for Israel, but it has proven that it at least constitutes a sort of address and has a reasonable capacity to exercise control.
"Destroying the terror infrastructure" in a military operation exacts a cost in casualties and in political complications while posing a risk of providing a "picture of victory" to Hamas.
The option of a military campaign is considered if there is no other alternative. There is an additional option - namely to exploit the failure of the Hamas government and of the Palestinian Authority in general, to manage Gaza's civil affairs. This is evident in an alarming collapse of Gaza's physical infrastructures even before the Operation Protective Edge: electricity, sewage, and most gravely, the supply of drinking water.
In talks on a ceasefire, even Hamas spokesmen emphasized the need "to lift the siege on Gaza, open the border crossings, and rehabilitate the infrastructures."
Some in Israel have taken note of this vulnerability and called for "cutting off Gaza's electricity" or "stopping the transfer of goods to Gaza."In our view, exploiting Hamas' vulnerability on this score is something that must be done wisely. To obtain international support for strategic moves, one must take care not to cause a humanitarian disaster in Gaza. To bring about such a disaster by cutting off electricity or withholding basic necessities would put Israel at a disadvantage.
The water crisis is different from the other infrastructure crises. Unlike its provision of electricity, Israel currently provides only negligible quantities of water to Gaza. Gaza's water crisis was created completely by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority before it, and was not caused by any Israeli action or misstep. On the contrary, Israel is the only actor capable of extricating Gaza from the crisis, meaning that it has a lever to help achieve strategic objectives.
Pro-Palestinian human rights organizations often approach the water crisis as another issue for which Israel bears the blame, and as ammunition to use against Israel in international tribunals.
Israel must avoid being drawn into the water issue as a "humanitarian" concern; it must instead present it as a political issue, expressing willingness to supply the residents of Gaza but only in return for the dismantling of the terror infrastructure. Gaza can manage with intermittent electricity and with sewage in the streets, but there is no life without water. By being drawn into the issue as a humanitarian one, Israel would also validate claims against it, and lose a winning card when it comes to demilitarizing Gaza.
In the reports of human rights organizations one has to distinguish between factual information, which is generally reliable, and political conclusions, which are biased against Israel. What do these organizations say?
Solidarity, an organization critical of Israel, stated that the water crisis "may pose an even greater threat to the well-being of the Palestinian population than the guns and bombs of the military occupation."6 This group, like others of its kind, is intent on blaming Israel for the situation, and in this case, it claims the crisis is rooted in the problem of the 1948 refugees, which makes it difficult to provide water to all of the residents, with the "occupation" only aggravating the situation. Solidarity does not direct a word at the Hamas government, even though it was under its rule that the severe deterioration occurred. When the organization describes the crisis from a professional standpoint, however, the data show clearly that Hamas is responsible, as well as the Palestinian Authority before it, and that only Israel can rescue the residents of Gaza from dying of thirst. These conclusions are of special importance precisely because of the nature of the organization that substantiates them.
According to this report, the 1993 Oslo agreements made the Palestinian Authority responsible for water management in Gaza, and in 1995, the PA established the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). In other words, from that point all matters involving water were in Palestinian hands. The report also states that in 1995 water experts already warned that unless measures were taken, by the year 2000 the aquifer would be seriously damaged. Gaza's drinking water comes from the coastal aquifer and from rainwater. Illegal wells and over-pumping were causing saline water to seep in. The deficit in supply compared to consumption worsened, however, by leaking pipelines that had already by 2000 lost half of the dwindling drinking water supply.
When the PWA was established in 1995, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international organizations prepared a comprehensive plan for solving Gaza's drinking-water problem by 2000. The plan included repairing the pipelines, reducing the use of well water, treating sewage, creating institutes for the desalination of seawater, and importing drinking water from Israel. However, in 2000 the second Intifada broke out and that brought an end to the plan. If it still had a chance, the elections that brought Hamas to power in 2006 and the resulting international boycott led USAID to close its offices in Gaza and cancel the tenders with the contractors, precisely when international measures were necessary to rescue Gaza from its water calamity.
Why is the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority poorly suited to take part in solving this problem? Solidarity asserts in its report that the essential problem with Ramallah is that in negotiations with Israel on water issues, the PLO adhered to basic positions involving "water rights" that preclude a more pragmatic approach to the problem. And that brings Solidarity to its bottom line: solving Palestine's water problems is totally dependent on cooperation with Israel.
Where do things stand at present? Several infrastructures – for drinking water, sewage, and electricity – are close to collapse, not only endangering Gazan life in the immediate context but also posing the danger of a total lack of drinking water in the near future. This state of affairs conclusively rules out the option of building seawater desalination facilities quickly due to the large quantity of sewage that has entered the seawater; the lack of an electricity network for the desalination facilities, and the lack of an array of pipelines that are not leaking. In any case, these matters are theoretical because no action has been taken, and even if it is taken, it will be too late for the rapidly deteriorating situation. The only thing that can save Gaza from disaster is the old plan to transfer drinking water from Israel.
Although even an organization like Solidarity understands that only Israel can save Gaza, the question is in what framework and under what rubric this aid would be provided. Pro-Palestinian organizations insist on defining this aid solely in the humanitarian context, meaning that Israel would get nothing in return for salvaging Gaza while its purported "acknowledgement" of guilt would expose it to claims in international tribunals. Moreover, the current round of fighting gave the Palestinians a new opportunity to accuse Israel of destroying the water infrastructure and to keep the solution in the humanitarian context.
On July 12, Oxfam published a report on the damage caused by the war. The document claims the IDF destroyed wells and sewage facilities, pinning blame for the disaster on Israel and putting the solution in the humanitarian context of rehabilitating Gaza from wartime damage.
Hamas, too, grasped these implications and published a report of its own detailing the damage to the water infrastructure caused by the IDF's actions and asserting that "Gaza is facing a water disaster." In an interview with Al Jazeera on July 15, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri reformulated Hamas's objectives in the war. In explaining why Hamas had rejected the initial Egyptian ceasefire initiative, he said:
We have not fought for a ceasefire. We have fought to remove the oppression from the residents of Gaza. There is a real humanitarian disaster in Gaza and we have fought for a real removal of the oppression. All the residents of Gaza are in a state of slow death. Real death. Gaza without water, without fuel, without electricity.
It is clear that Hamas' negotiations over a ceasefire will put these issues on the table. A statement made by senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzuq in this context is very important to note. In his interview Abu Marzuq said: "We prefer the re-occupation of Gaza by Israel . . . because it will entail the re-supplying of water, electricity and labor; all of which are the responsibility of the occupying force."
In sum, it is precisely the international organizations that are known for their anti-Israeli positions that have focused on the approaching drinking-water calamity in Gaza. Although no data are available on when the drinking water will cease to be potable, all indications are that the day is drawing near with alarming rapidity. International organizations will pin the blame for the disaster on Israel and will strive to put the solution of the problem in the humanitarian framework so that the terror infrastructure will not be harmed.
Israel's position must be clear: it is willing to help with the rehabilitation of Gaza's drinking-water system but not in a humanitarian framework. Instead, this must be done in the context of a binding political agreement entailing the rehabilitation of the civilian infrastructures in return for the destruction of the terror infrastructure. On this issue Israel must not bend.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.