“The water is back,” one family member would announce in a mix of excitement and panic, often very late at night. The moment such an announcement was made, my whole family would run to fill every tank, container or bottle that they could find. Quite often, the water supply would only last for a few minutes, leaving us with a collective sense of defeat and worrying about the likelihood of surviving.
That was our life under Israeli military occupation in Gaza. The tactic of holding Palestinians hostage to Israel’s water “charity” was widespread during the First Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993) to the extent that denying water supplies to refugee camps, villages, towns or whole regions was the first measure taken by the Israeli occupation forces to subdue the rebellious native population. This was often followed by military raids, mass arrests and deadly violence; but it almost always began with cutting off the water supply.
Israel’s water war on the Palestinians has changed since those days, especially as the climate change crisis has accelerated the apartheid state’s need to prepare for grim future possibilities. Of course, such preparation is largely at the expense of the occupied Palestinians. In the West Bank, for example, the Israeli government continues to usurp Palestinian water resources from the region’s main mountain and coastal aquifers. Frustratingly, Israel’s Mekorot water company then sells stolen Palestinian water back to Palestinian villages and towns, especially in the northern West Bank, at exorbitant prices.
Aside from the ongoing profiteering from water theft, Israel continues to use water as a form of collective punishment in the West Bank, while frequently denying Palestinians, especially in Area C, the right to dig new wells to circumvent the colonial-occupation state’s water monopoly.
According to Amnesty International, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank consume, on average, 73 litres of water per person, per day. Compare this with the amount that an Israeli citizen consumes, approximately 240 litres of water per person, per day. Even worse, look at how much illegal Israeli Jewish settlers consume: over 300 litres per person, per day. The Palestinian allotted share of water is not only far below the average consumed by Israeli citizens, but also below the recommended daily minimum of 100 litres per capita set by the World Health Organisation.
As difficult as the situation for West Bank Palestinians is, in Gaza the humanitarian catastrophe is already having a dreadful effect. On the occasion of World Water Day on 22 March, Gaza’s Water and Environmental Quality Authority warned of a “massive crisis” should the besieged territory’s water sources continue to be depleted at the current dangerous rate. The authority’s spokesman, Mazen Al-Banna, told reporters that 98 per cent 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 as well. Last October, Muhammed Shehada of the Geneva-based Euro-Med Monitor, told the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that about one-quarter of all diseases in Gaza are caused by water pollution, and that an estimated twelve per cent of deaths among Gaza’s children are “linked to intestinal infections related to contaminated water.”
The question is, how did Gaza get to this point?On 25 May last year, four days after the end of the latest Israeli military offensive against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the charity Oxfam announced that 400,000 people in the Gaza Strip have no access to regular water supplies. This is hardly surprising, given that Israeli military offensives always begin with the bombing of Palestinian electricity grids, water networks and other vital public infrastructure. According to Oxfam, “Eleven 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 ailing infrastructure, much of Gaza’s water has a dangerously high salinity level and is polluted by sewage as well as chemical fertilisers washed down from Israeli settlements.
Even before Israel redeployed its forces and moved its settlers out in 2005 to impose a siege on the Palestinian population by land, sea and air, Gaza had a water crisis. Its coastal aquifer was entirely controlled by the Israeli military administration, which diverted quality water to the few thousand Jewish settlers, while occasionally allocating highly saline water to the then 1.5 million Palestinian residents, as long as the Palestinians did not protest or resist the Israeli occupation in any way.
Nearly 17 years later, Gaza’s population has grown to 2.1 million, and its already struggling aquifer is in a far worse shape. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that water from Gaza’s aquifer is depleting due to “over-extraction (because) people have no other choice.”
UNICEF added: “Worse, pollution and an influx of seawater mean that only four per cent of the aquifer water is fit to drink. The rest must be purified and desalinated to make it drinkable.” When electricity supplies are subject to frequent disruption, this is a tortuous process.
In other words, Gaza’s problem is not the lack of access to existing freshwater reserves as the latter simply do not exist or are depleting rapidly, but the lack of technology and fuel that would give Palestinians in Gaza the ability to make their water at least nominally drinkable. Even that, though, is not a long term solution, because Israel is doing its utmost to destroy any Palestinian opportunities to recover from this ongoing crisis.
Moreover, it seems that Tel Aviv is only invested in making the situation worse to jeopardise Palestinian chances of survival. For example, last year the Palestinians accused Israel of deliberately flooding thousands of acres of land in Gaza when it opened the sluices on its southern dams, which the state uses to collect rain water. This by now almost annual ritual by Israel continues to devastate Gaza’s ever shrinking farming areas, the backbone of Palestinian survival efforts under Israel’s hermetic siege.
The international community usually pays at least some attention to Gaza during times of Israeli bombardments, but even then the response is mostly negative, with Palestinians accused of provoking Israel into acting in “self-defence”. The truth is that even when Israel’s military campaigns end and its bombs stop falling on Palestinian civilians, Tel Aviv continues to wage war on the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants.
Although it is powerful militarily — it is a nuclear-armed state, after all — Israel claims that it is facing an “existential threat” in the Middle East. In the real world beyond Israeli propaganda, it is the existence of the people of occupied Palestine which is under threat. When almost all of Gaza’s water is not fit for human consumption because of a deliberate Israeli strategy, it is easy to understand why Palestinians continue to resist the Israeli occupation as if their lives depend on it. The simple truth is that their lives do depend on it. Without adequate water supplies, they will die. Unless the international community sits up, takes notice and actually does something about water supplies in the Gaza Strip, the next crisis might be worse than anything we have ever seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.