From Wastewater to War

The water and sewage problems that Israel and the Palestinians face today are proof that unilateral disengagement is impossible.

At the end of this month, Israel will be dedicating its largest desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea. The facility is located in Ashkelon, not far from the northern border of the Gaza Strip. In the first phase of operation, it is meant to supply 100 million cubic meters of water a year.

But now, as the government is gearing up for a party, a classified report has landed on its desk that was commissioned from the Israel Water Commission prior to Israel's decision to leave the Gaza Strip and portions of northern Samaria. The section relevant to the desalination plant in Ashkelon states that if the Palestinians go ahead with their plans to lay a sewage pipe that drains into the sea in the northern Gaza Strip, it will "paralyze the largest desalination plant in Ashkelon and pollute the nearby beaches."

The wording used by the Israel Water Commission in this report is uncharacteristically harsh: "Crippling the work of the desalination plant by piping sewage into the sea from northern Gaza is intolerable for the water economy. Any attempt to lay a pipe that drains sewage into the sea and pollutes our coastline must be physically stopped." This kind of stern language was not even employed when Syria and the Arab countries tried to divert the headwaters of the Jordan years ago, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Six-Day War.

The water and sewage problems that Israel and the Palestinians face today are proof that unilateral disengagement is impossible. The conclusion is that understandings and agreements are unavoidable. Those who try to do without them end up resorting to military force. Unlike the past, now there are several major powers prepared to intervene in the event of a serious crisis. Some of them (the United States, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the European Union) have been asked to help the Palestinians solve the sewage problems in the Gaza Strip. They can impose strict conditions that will keep matters from deteriorating.

To the credit of Palestinian water commissioner Fadel Kawash, he appears to be aware of Israel's concerns. "In principle, I accept that there cannot be unsupervised discharge of sewage, to the sea or anywhere else. Both sides will suffer if the situation gets out of hand," says Kawash. "The fighting has been bad for us. The foreign contractors have left, and the only ones still around are the Swedes. Today we have one sewage pipeline from the Gaza Strip to the sea, in the vicinity of Gaza City (Sheikh Ajlin). Waste flows in the direction of Israel in the Wadi Hanun area. I agree that spilling sewage into the sea should not be allowed. But bear in mind that there is a huge pool of sewage near Beit Lakiya, covering some 400 dunams of land." Kawash says the cleanup in the northern Gaza Strip could take at least two years.

Ultimately, the Palestinian water commissioner is bouncing the ball back into Israel's court. On the one hand, he admits that there are close to 300 illegal drilling projects going on in the Jenin district ("we have no police to enforce the law"), with most of the drilling equipment bought from a factory in Beit Shean. He says there is an Israeli-Palestinian mafia operating here.

On the other hand, he argues that the major problem is the sewage - 15 million cubic meters of it - produced by the Israeli settlements. The rest of the waste, some of it seeping into the groundwater and flowing toward Israel, is from Palestinian villages.

This is a dangerous business - in many respects even more dangerous than terror. Terror attacks and Qassam rockets can be fought with fences and firepower. But Israel cannot block Palestinian sewage with secure borders. Deterioration on this front is a recipe for all-out war.