Ahead of a Disaster in Gaza

Israel has both the ability and the responsibility to prevent the UN's warning from coming true: that in 2020, Gaza will no longer be fit for human habitation.

A Palestinian woman bakes bread in a tent outside her dwelling in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 19, 2016.

Israel claims that since the 2005 disengagement, it no longer controls the Gaza Strip and has no responsibility for Gaza’s some 2 million residents. The Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank both insist Israel is responsible, while also blaming each other; the Gazan public blames all three parties, as well as the international community. But the Defense Ministry, the Shin Bet security service and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories are all staffed by people whose job requires them to know about the disastrous situation in Gaza, which is steadily getting worse.

The argument over whether Israel has effective control over Gaza doesn’t alter the facts: Some 95 percent of the water in Gaza’s aquifer isn’t fit to drink, and purified water is distributed to households under unhygienic conditions; there is electricity for eight hours a day or less; about 100 million liters of sewage flow into the sea every day, both because of the power outages and because of delays in bringing spare parts and new pumps into Gaza; the residue of spent Israeli ammunition affects the environment and people’s health in ways that have yet to be investigated; unemployment has soared to about 40 percent, because Israeli movement restrictions have strangled production; and hundreds of thousands of young people who have never left this crowded enclave know no other reality.

Each problem affects and intensifies the others, and it’s impossible to separate them. Whether they are increasing the incidence of sickness in Gaza or not is for researchers to determine. But either way, thousands of patients can’t obtain suitable care.

Internet commenters are entitled to be apathetic to the existence of cancer patients whom Israel – in a process devoid of transparency or external oversight – isn’t allowing to exit Gaza to obtain medical treatment, or to whom it has delayed granting permits until the disease gets worse (“Gaza cancer patients: Israel’s refusal to let us in for treatment is a ‘death sentence,’” Jack Khoury, Haaretz, January 6).

But COGAT, which knew exactly how to reap public relations benefits from letting relatives of Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s prime minister, obtain medical treatment in Israel, also knows very well that when organizations like Physicians for Human Rights and Gisha intervene, security restrictions are frequently lifted.

The social media ranters can say it’s none of our business what happens 10 kilometers from Sderot and three from Kibbutz Zikim. The decision makers, in contrast, know very well that seabound sewage and infectious diseases know no borders.

Whether it’s responsible or not, Israel holds the key. Its practice of playing games with patients’ lives, which borders on sadism, must stop. Israel must create a supervised, transparent and humane process for patients to leave Gaza, as a first step toward a fundamental revamping of its failed tactic of blockading the Strip. It must send water to Gaza in quantities large enough to save the aquifer and run additional electricity lines to Gaza to halt the environmental devastation. Israel has both the ability and the responsibility to prevent the UN’s warning from coming true: that in 2020, Gaza will no longer be fit for human habitation.