Walking along the Palestine-Egypt border between the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula nowadays is a dangerous adventure. You might, for example, fall deep underground in a hole made by the seawater pumped into the area by the Egyptian army.
Huge water pipes have been installed along the border and the seawater is pumped through in order, it is claimed, to “destroy the smuggling tunnels” which are allegedly used by terrorists to attack Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. Such tunnels are, in fact, known widely as Gaza’s “lifeline”, used to smuggle basic necessities in order to break the Israeli-led siege of the enclave since 2007.
The siege was tightened after the ouster of the first ever freely-elected Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, on 30 July, 2013. The army, which carried out a coup and now governs Egypt, immediately closed the Rafah border crossing and started a war against the tunnels.
“Like a spring”
Abdul-Rahman Ali, a member of the Palestinian National Service movement, serves in one of the security bases scattered along the border. He described how he was surprised when he saw the seawater coming out of the ground.
“The first time I saw this was about five weeks ago,” Ali told me. “I was patrolling the border with two of my colleagues. Suddenly, we saw water coming out from the ground like a spring. We were shocked.”
When they got closer, he explained, they tasted it and realised that it wasn’t fresh spring water. He hadn’t heard about the Egyptian installation of the pipes for the purpose of flooding the tunnels.
“I contacted the operation room, informed them about the situation and they contacted water and soil experts who came to the area. We were all surprised to see these ‘springs’ in other places as well.”
Abu-Lo’ai, the owner of a tunnel, spoke to MEMO on condition of anonymity. He said that his tunnel is still undamaged, but he has suspended its use and sent the workers away.
“I feel it is dangerous because another tunnel, just 15 metres away from mine, was flooded with seawater and large parts of it were damaged. I am afraid that today, tomorrow or after tomorrow the water will affect my tunnel.”
He spoke about dozens of tunnels which were filled completely with seawater and either partially or completely damaged.
However, he said that this is not such a “chronic” problem because he believes that he and his colleagues will find a solution. The problem that Abu-Lo’ai is afraid of is that the soil might become instable and this could cause landslides.
Engineer Usama Abu-Nqirah, the Director of the Environment and Hygiene Department in the municipality of Rafah, has similar concerns. He said that there were a number of landslides and warned of more if the seawater continues to be pumped in.
“There were only a couple of landslides, but there are dozens of cracks along the border and the ground is expected to subside, making huge holes if more and more water is used,” he explained. Abu-Nqirah also warned that soil instability jeopardises residential buildings in the area as there is a lot of subsidence just metres away from a large building in the city.
The Egyptian army knew the potential effects of the seawater and kept them in mind when local residents were evacuated from what is now a wide buffer zone along the Egyptian side of the border. In Gaza, however, there are residential buildings just 50 metres from the border fence.
In addition to contaminating the soil with so much salt, destroying the tunnels and threatening homes, pumping seawater into the soil damages the natural aquifers, which are already depleted and polluted by the Israeli occupation. “The Palestinian aquifers are depleted by the Israelis, who dig wells thousands of metres deeper than ours,” said Abu-Nqirah. “They steal our fresh water and seawater slowly seeps in to take its place.”
Such abuse of the soil accelerates an increase in saline levels in the aquifers, he pointed out. “They pour a huge amount of salty water into the soil, which should only be absorbing fresh rain water.” Abu-Nqirah said that international water experts warned of “massive and dangerous” consequences for the environment as a result of the Egyptian army project, mainly regarding the aquifers.
The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza Strip since mid-2007, has called on Egypt a number of times to stop pumping seawater into the Palestinian soil. However, the Egyptians insist that this is essential to protect their national security. During his visit to Cairo last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Egyptian journalists that he is aware of all Egyptian measures taken on the Gaza border.
Images by MEMO correspondent in Gaza, Motasem A Dalloul.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.