In July 1994 the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps set up a field hospital in Goa, Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) to treat survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. In the evenings, after their devoted care of the patients, the doctors told the journalists who accompanied them that if they were to fly clean water in huge containers to Goa, the rescue would be wider ranging, faster and more efficient. But that’s a less prestigious and less media-friendly solution, they said frankly.
In Gaza, too, the immediate solution is the simplest: transferring large quantities of water from Israel. That would stop the final collapse of the coastal aquifer in the Strip, and would provide time for repairs and other solutions.
On the face of it, it’s only a technical problem: over-pumping of the aquifer in Gaza, which is causing the increased infiltration of seawater and sewage into the system. But the root of the problem is political, namely Israel’s attitude to the Gaza Strip as a separate entity with an autonomous water economy.
The residents of the Strip, who now number about 2 million, about 70 percent of them refugees who came from villages and cities in today’s Israel, are obligated to make do with the same section of aquifer that served the 80,000 residents of the Strip before 1948, and with the same water capacity.
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Treating the Strip as an autonomous water economy began before Hamas won the election in 2006. Even the water that Mekorot, Israel’s national water carrier, sold to the Strip starting in the 1980s was only meant to compensate for Israeli drilling inside the Strip, which until the disengagement supplied water to the settlements, most of which were agricultural, using water in great quantities. This attitude toward the Strip was taken to an extreme in the Oslo Accords, which determined that control of the water sources would remain in Israeli hands, until the implementation of the final status solution.
The over-pumping in the Strip existed and was known already then, but the logical and immediate solution of channeling massive quantities of water from Israel to the Strip (along with the repair and expansion of the water infrastructure and the expansion of the sewage system) was not proposed. Had there been political will on Israel’s part, channeling water to the Strip could have been presented as partial and fair compensation for the significant quantities of water that Israel pumped and still pumps in the West Bank, for Israeli citizens and the settlements.
But during the negotiations Israel refused to discuss the principle of equality in sharing the water resources, and imposed restrictions on the amounts of water that the Palestinians are permitted to pump in the West Bank (so that the ratio between Israelis and Palestinians of the amount of water for domestic use is about 4:1).
As in many other areas, the Palestinian representatives, the weaker party at the negotiating table, consoled themselves that in any case the agreement was temporary, and that the issues of water distribution would be solved within “five years” (1999, the date when the final status solution should have come into effect). They were also afraid that buying additional water from Mekorot for the Gaza Strip would increase dependence on Israel.
In addition, in an era when the global private sector was encouraged to invest in Gaza, and when senior Palestinian leaders were involved in business initiatives, water desalination facilities were considered another source of employment, profit and development. But even without the intra-Palestinian conflict, the military attacks and the siege, it’s very doubtful whether plants for desalinating seawater could have provided what was lacking.
Today not only does Israeli control of the water sources in the West Bank remain in place, but so does their unequal distribution. The Palestinian Authority’s dependence on water it purchases from Israel for the Palestinians in the West Bank has only increased. The intra-Palestinian political split paralyzes the implementation of the fast and logical answer to the environmental and health disaster, whose severity the UN institutions and the World Bank have been warning about for years.
Added to that are the bureaucratic and political complications created by the security monitoring system when it comes to bringing in raw materials and construction materials to the Strip, to which Israel, the PA and the UN are partners (the GRM – Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism).
Citing security reasons, for months and years Israel delayed the entry of pumps for sewage purification facilities, spare parts, pipes and so on, thereby preventing the repair, rehabilitation, development and expansion of the sewage infrastructure to meet the urgent needs of the Strip. As a RAND Corporation study explains, these are Israel’s urgent needs as well.