By Ramzy Baroud
Whenever a family member announced, excitedly but also panicked, that “the water is back,” my whole family would start running in all directions to fill every tank, container or bottle that could possibly be filled. Quite often, the water would last for just a few minutes, leaving us with a collective sense of defeat, worrying about our survival.
This was life under Israeli military occupation in Gaza. The tactic of holding Palestinians hostage to Israel’s water charity was so widespread during the First Intifada that denying water supplies to refugee camps, villages, towns or even whole regions was the first measure taken to subdue the rebellious population. This was often followed by military raids, mass arrests and deadly violence. But the process almost always began with cutting Palestinians off from their water supplies.
Israel’s water war on the Palestinians has changed since those early days, especially as the climate change crisis has accelerated Israel’s need to prepare for grim future possibilities. Of course, this largely happens at the expense of the occupied Palestinians. In the West Bank, the Israeli government continues to usurp Palestinian water resources from the region’s main aquifers — the Mountain Aquifer and the Coastal Aquifer. Frustratingly, Israel’s main water company, Mekorot, sells stolen Palestinian water to Palestinian villages and towns, especially in the northern West Bank, at exorbitant prices.
Israel also continues to use water as a form of collective punishment in the West Bank, while often denying Palestinians, especially those in Area C, the right to dig new wells to circumvent its water monopoly.
According to Amnesty International, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank each consume, on average, 73 liters of water a day. Israeli citizens, meanwhile, consume approximately 240 liters of water a day. And, even worse, illegal Israeli settlers consume more than 300 liters per day. The Palestinians’ share of the water is not only far below the average consumed by Israelis, but is even below the recommended daily minimum of 100 liters as designated by the World Health Organization.
As difficult as the situation for West Bank Palestinians is, in Gaza a humanitarian catastrophe is already taking place. On the occasion of World Water Day on March 22, Gaza’s Water and Environmental Quality Authority warned of a “massive crisis” should the Strip’s water supplies continue to deplete at the current rate. Spokesman Mazen Al-Banna told reporters that 98 percent of Gaza’s water supplies are not fit for human consumption.
The consequences of this terrifying statistic are well known to Palestinians and, in fact, to the international community too. Last October, Mohammed Shehada of the Euro-Med Monitor told the 48th UN Human Rights Council session that about a quarter of all diseases in Gaza are caused by water pollution and that an estimated 12 percent of deaths among Gaza’s children are “linked to intestinal infections related to contaminated water.”
But how did Gaza get to this point?
On May 25 last year, four days after the end of the latest Israeli war on Gaza, the charity Oxfam announced that 400,000 people in besieged Gaza had no access to regular water supplies. The reason being that Israeli military campaigns always begin with the targeting of Palestinian electricity grids, water services and other vital public facilities. According to Oxfam, “11 days of bombardment… severely impacted the three main desalination plants in Gaza city.”
It is important to keep in mind that the water crisis in Gaza has been ongoing for years and every aspect of this protracted crisis is linked to Israel. With damaged or failing infrastructure, much of Gaza’s water has dangerously high levels of salinity or is extremely polluted, including by sewage.
Even before Israel redeployed its forces out of Gaza in 2005 to impose a siege on the Strip’s population from land, sea and air, Gaza had a water crisis. Its coastal aquifer was entirely controlled by the Israeli military administration, which diverted clean water to the few thousand settlers, while occasionally allocating highly saline water to the then-1.5 million Palestinian people, as long as they did not protest or resist the occupation in any way.
Approaching 17 years later, Gaza’s population has grown to 2.1 million and its already struggling aquifer is in far worse shape. UNICEF has reported that water from Gaza’s aquifer is depleting due to “over-extraction (because) people have no other choice.” The organization added: “Worse, pollution and an influx of seawater mean that only 4 percent of the aquifer water is fit to drink. The rest must be purified and desalinated to make it drinkable.” In other words, Gaza’s problem is not a lack of access to freshwater reserves, but a lack of technology and fuel that would allow its inhabitants to make their water nominally drinkable. Even that would not be a long-term solution.
Israel is doing its utmost to destroy any chance of recovery from this ongoing crisis. Moreover, it seems that Tel Aviv is only invested in making the situation worse to jeopardize the Palestinians’ hopes of survival. For example, last year, Israel was accused of deliberately flooding thousands of dunums of Palestinian land in Gaza when it vented its southern dams, which Israel uses to collect rainwater. This almost yearly ritual continues to devastate Gaza’s ever-shrinking farming areas, which are the backbone of Palestinian survival under Israel’s hermetic siege.
The international community generally only pays attention to Gaza during times of war; even then, the attention is mostly negative, with Palestinians accused of provoking Israel’s supposedly defensive military actions. The truth is that, even when Israel’s military campaigns end, Tel Aviv continues to wage war on the Strip’s inhabitants.
Though militarily powerful, Israel claims it is facing an “existential threat” in the Middle East. In reality, it is the Palestinians’ existence that is in real jeopardy. When almost all of Gaza’s water is not fit for human consumption because of a deliberate Israeli strategy, one can understand why Palestinians continue to fight back as if their lives depend on it — because they do.