Israel’s About-Face on Gaza

Netanyahu may be changing his mind about war. If he does, it will be thanks to an environmental and health disaster that threatens to cross the border.

A Palestinian girl fills up a bottle with water from a cistern in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 24. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian girl fills up a bottle with water from a cistern in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 24. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week’s cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, following an Israeli military incursion and retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza, may reflect an increasing awareness within Israel that war is not in the country’s self-interest. At the heart of the matter is Gaza’s mounting humanitarian disaster, which threatens to spill over the border.

For months, the United Nations and other humanitarian groups have warned that Gaza—with its overlapping problems of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, contaminated water, and disease—will be “unlivable” by 2020. The U.N., the World Bank, Save the Children, and other groups even cautioned that continued Israeli bombing and economic blockade could bring Gaza to a state of collapse, from which Israel would not be immune.

Such warnings are nothing new. The difference now is that people at the center of power in Israel appear to be listening. Last Wednesday’s resignation of Israel’s hawkish defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cease-fire deal a “capitulation to terrorism,” is instructive. Lieberman had insisted that the government “hit Hamas very hard.” Whereas his calls might once have been heeded, this time, they were ignored. In recent weeks, before signing the cease-fire, Netanyahu even eased Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. Both moves signal an understanding that a fourth war is probably not the answer for the devastated Gaza Strip.

At the heart of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is contaminated water and a consequent rise in illness and disease, especially among children. Doctors and health officials in Gaza’s hospitals and camps report skyrocketing rates of gastroenteritis, salmonella, typhoid fever, kidney disease, stunting in children, and even something called blue baby syndrome—“bluish lips, bluish skin, bluish faces” in infants, said Mohammad Abu Samia, a pediatric director at Gaza’s Al-Rantisi hospital. He added that he was also seeing rises in marasmus, a disease of severe malnutrition in infants and young children. Independent studies have confirmed spikes in anemiainfant mortality, and stunting. A Rand Corp. study also linked bad water to a rise in child mortality in Gaza.

The main cause for the spread of many of these diseases is Gaza’s aquifer, which has been steadily contaminated over decades by agricultural pesticides, sewage, and the intrusion of seawater from severe overpumping. Fully 97 percent of Gaza’s drinking-water wells are unfit for human consumption. Because the well water tastes so salty, two-thirds of Gazans rely on an unregulated network of private water trucks, which themselves deliver water laced with E. coli. Meanwhile, the level of contamination in rooftop water tanks, according to tests by the Palestinian Water Authority, has reached 70 percent. E. coli can lead to severe diarrhea, which in turn can lead to stunting in children. “What it also means is an impediment in terms of brain development,” UNICEF’s Gregor von Medeazza said. “You would actually have a measurable impact on the IQ of those children as they grow.”

Making things even worse, an estimated 29 million gallons of raw and poorly treated sewage pour into the Mediterranean Sea every day. The contamination has forced the closure of Gaza’s beaches and led to the death of a 5-year-old, Mohammad al-Sayis, who ingested sewage-laced seawater and later died of a brain disease. It was Gaza’s first documented death by sewage. With Gaza’s power plant operating as few as four hours a day—owing in part to Israel’s economic blockade, which has caused a shortage of fuel to run the plant—Gaza’s sewage treatment plant has nearly been shuttered.

“Disease is on the rise,” said Gershon Baskin, the founder of the Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, a think tank in Jerusalem. “And what’s important to remember from the Israeli point of view is that these viral and bacterial-based diseases cross borders.” Some Israelis are heeding his alarm. According to Gidon Bromberg, the Tel Aviv-based director of EcoPeace Middle East, the contamination has even “led to the closure of the Ashkelon desalination plant, which provides 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water.” After all, “Israel has the Iron Dome that can shoot down rockets,” he continued. “But nothing stops sewage.”

The escalating environmental and health disaster might be the thing that finally changes Israel’s policy toward Gaza. It is one thing for left-leaning groups to criticize the effects of Israel’s blockade on the health of Gazans. But pro-Palestinian solidarity is no longer the only motivator. In January, a report by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies called into question the exclusion of certain “dual-use” items from entry into Gaza, which Israel justifies on the grounds that some items could be converted for military use. “[S]evere limits on access and movement imposed by Israel and Egypt have hindered post-conflict repair and reconstruction,” the report declared. Israel’s designation of dual-use items “includes 23 essential items” used in Gaza’s water, sanitation, and hygiene sector, “such as pumps, drilling equipment, and chemicals for water purification.”

Even more telling: This year, a unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) endorsed a plan from the Palestinian Authority, the U.N., and international donors to address the water and sewage crisis through a series of desalination and treatment plants. The unpublished document, which came from the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and was titled “Gaza Emergency Response,” warned that “the civilian population in the Gaza Strip is in great distress” and called for “an immediate humanitarian response.” (Notably absent, though, was any accompanying guarantee that the Israeli military would not target the new construction, a crucial concern among Gazans, given that Israel has bombed critical water and power infrastructure in the past.)

Last month, Israel also began allowing increased fuel deliveries to Gaza’s power plant, doubling the amount of electricity to about eight hours per day. At the same time, Israel signed off on the delivery of $15 million in funds from Qatar into Gaza to pay the salaries of Gaza’s civil servants.

After a decade of wars and thousands of casualties—the vast majority of them Gazans—Israeli officials appear to be taking seriously the dire warnings from the U.N. and others humanitarian groups. “We are working to prevent a humanitarian crisis, which is why we’re willing to accept the U.N. and Egypt’s mediation efforts to reach calm and fix the electricity situation,” Netanyahu told Haaretz shortly after announcing the cease-fire.

This change in Israeli policy, however temporary, answers a long-standing warning from Gazans. “If you really want to change the lives of people in Gaza,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, “you have to solve the water issue first. Otherwise, you will see a huge collapse of everything. Otherwise, Gaza will not be a livable place.”

Sandy Tolan is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC.  He is the author of The Lemon Tree and writes frequently about the Middle East.
 Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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