For about 10 years, Omar and Khaled of Khan Yunis - who until recently worked in the hothouses of the settlers in Muasi (Gush Katif) - "hitched a ride" on Israeli water statistics. While they worked in the hothouses, they could enjoy clean, clear water that flowed straight from the faucet, and to feel the tremendous difference when compared to the water awaiting them in the faucets at home.
The 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip consume about 150 million cubic meters a year, 90 million more than the renewal potential of the section of the coastal aquifer in the Strip. The overpumping causes seawater to infiltrate the aquifer, which together with the infiltration of sewage water from cesspools and neglected infrastructure, makes 90 percent of the water for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip non-potable.
Years before the disengagement was discussed, the water system of Gaza was severed from that of the country as a whole. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were occupied, the number of residents on both sides of the Green Line increased and water consumption habits changed and the summers are becoming hotter, but Israel, which controls the water sources in the entire country, continued to impose autarchy on the Gaza water system, as though the Strip were a self-sustained desert island.
But Gaza, like Eilat, is part of one territorial unit between the river and the sea, with common aquifers. The Israelis benefit from its water sources regardless of their place of residence. Fact: the 8,000 settlers who were evacuated from the Strip consumed almost 8 million cu.m. annually, according to the statistics supplied by the Mekorot National Water Carrier to the Palestinian water authority: 4.1 million cu.m. were pumped from 26 wells dug by Israel in the Strip for the use of the settlers, and another 3.8 million cu.m. were channeled to them annually from Israel itself.
On average, every Palestinian in the Strip consumes 123 cu.m.annually (for home, agricultural and industrial use). Each Israeli settler consumed about 1,000 cu.m. This gap partially explains how the settlers managed to maintain about 5,000 dunams of hothouses, about a quarter of the hothouses in the Strip.
Omar and Khaled will apparently soon return to work in one of those hothouses, which were bought by wealthy Jews for $14 million, and transferred as a gift to the Palestinian Administration, to operate them and to export their unique produce abroad. World Bank experts, who supported this transaction in order to revive Gaza's economy, believe that it would appear to make good sense in the short term, even in Gaza's water-constrained environment, to use a portion of the Gush Katif area for export-oriented agriculture.
But from inside Gaza, it looks as though the water situation has passed the disaster threshold. "What is surprising is that we're still alive," was how Ahmed al-Yaqubi, the director of water sources in the Palestinian water authority, summed up the situation. He didn't discuss the hothouses directly, but in a conversation with Haaretz he warned of ambitious projects that will quickly deplete the aquifer - unless they receive water from another source, outside Gaza's aquifer.
But even now, the PA is using only half of the 10 million CBM that the Oslo Accords allow it to purchase from Mekorot, in other words, from water sources outside the Strip. The price is too high for the PA and for its customers. Will money miraculously be found for the PA to buy water for the produce of the hothouses, money that is not available for drinking water?
The hothouse transaction has been completed, but the discussions that are far more important to the Palestinians - about border crossings and a change in the system of transferring merchandise, so that it will be economically more worthwhile and logical - are still dragging on.
The settlers' hothouses operated in the context of an entire territorial unit, both in terms of freedom of movement for the merchandise and in terms of water use. They flourished thanks to a system the extra benefits available to Jews. In order for the export of their produce abroad by the Palestinians to succeed, they have to continue to enjoy a situation of "extra benefits," in water usage and at the border crossings.
Thus a situation of VIP vegetables may be created. The experience of the Oslo years taught us well: Israel grants senior PA officials, their associates, friends of key Israelis (including entrepreneurs and architects of the Oslo Accords) and well-connected merchants who are close to senior members of the security services, relative freedom of movement, which it denied to the rest of the Palestinian people. Therefore, it is very reasonable to fear that the massive international and Israeli involvement in the hothouse transaction will accelerate the transfer of their produce at the Gaza Strip border crossings, while other produce will be stuck.
Another guava season has already been lost, causing tremendous additional losses to several hundred families in Muasi and in Khan Yunis. During the disengagement, no foreign donor came to the aid of the Muasi farmers, two meters from the hothouses, so that they could market their guavas in the Strip and outside it.
It is impossible to quantify the tremendous social damage caused by the VIP system at the crossings. But probably the economists will come and calculate the social damage that will be caused by VIP vegetables and weigh it against the financial gain promised by the settlers' hothouses.