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Drying Palestine: Israel’s Systemic Water War

The targeting of Palestinian water infrastructure is a systemic and two-pronged Israeli policy to prevent the existence of sustainable Palestinian communities. In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka Policy Member and environmental researcher Muna Dajani builds on the evidence of Israel’s targeting of water infrastructure and shows how the policy is not only preventing economic growth but is also driving Palestinians off their land. She looks at the resulting commodification of water and cautions that the process is changing traditional patterns of community water management and could forever change the shape of Palestinian society.

Key parts:

Amongst the causalities of Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip has been the coastal enclave’s water infrastructure, which has not been spared deliberate targeting by Israeli missiles. This attack on water infrastructure is neither a new practice nor one that is specific to Gaza but is rather part and parcel of a sustained Israeli campaign to de-develop Palestinian communities and make everyday life unbearable.”

The policy of denying Palestinian communities access to water can be seen as a tool of warfare, exercised relentlessly by Israel’s occupation and military authorities and ultimately undermining Palestinian resistance. The ramifications of this policy are vast. They include long-term environmental degradation, both short- and long-term dangers to public health, and the effective denial of access to clean drinking water to a substantial civilian population.”

The targeting of water infrastructure is prohibited under Protocol I of the Geneva Convention (1977), which states: 'It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of a civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.'”

The United Nation’s Goldstone Report that was commissioned to document human rights violations in the wake of the 2008-2009 Israeli attack on Gaza ('Operation Cast Lead') affirmed what it saw as Israel’s 'deliberate and systematic' destruction of water infrastructure.”

This year’s 51-day summer assault on Gaza is no exception. During the course of the bombardment, Israeli political figures reportedly called for water supply to Gaza to be cut off along with its electricity. This is part of a rhetoric of warfare that sees water and energy infrastructure as a political weapon of coercion.”

In the first days of the most recent military operation in Gaza, 'Pillar of Defense,' Israeli aircraft targeted the sewage pump station west of Gaza City. In striking its target, Israel disabled infrastructure that pumps 25,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day to Gaza’s main sewage treatment plant. Following the attack, the Gaza Municipality announced that it would no longer be able to treat sewage. Continued strikes on the facility also forced management to halt its attempts to repair the damage in order to avoid injury to staff members after seven employees were killed while inspecting the initial damages. Further Israeli shelling east of Gaza City hit a main water pipeline, disconnecting areas east of the city and cutting off the water supply to more than 1.5 million inhabitants.”

Since the beginning of the summer assault on Gaza, the main wastewater treatment plant has been destroyed, including the network pipelines that connect to it. Four wells, five reservoirs, and countless network pipelines have also been rendered unusable. As a result, more than 100,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage has flowed through the streets of Gaza and into the sea.”

As whole neighborhoods overflow with sewage water, there is increasing concern of widespread health epidemics. Over-burdened hospitals must now also deal with digestive ailments, skin allergies, and water borne and respiratory diseases. One Oxfam spokesperson stated, 'We’re working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure that prevents people in Gaza from cooking, flushing toilets, or washing hands. The current public health risk is massive, and […] Gaza’s infrastructure will take months or years to fully recover.'”

With severe restrictions on what is allowed to enter Gaza, reconstruction of the sewage treatment plant following attacks sustained in 2008 has been impossible. Beyond reconstruction, regular repairs are also made impossible and upgrading to more efficient or sustainable systems out of the question. Innovations in water treatment and the building of quality of life that depends on regular access to water are thus prohibited; likewise, available resources are rapidly depleting, making future projects more difficult.”

Even more insidious has been the slow but deliberate damage to water infrastructure in the West Bank. The same policy of intentional damage to water equipment during times of military assault has also been witnessed across the area, with the most obvious being Israel’s invasion of Jenin city in 2001 and 2002, which caused massive damage to water and wastewater infrastructure, cutting off water services for weeks.”

Without access to regular, clean, and reliable sources of water, industrial, agricultural, and trade activities decline, causing economic meltdown. This is especially true for highly vulnerable and resource-dependent economic activities in Palestine, such as agriculture. Under such conditions, only 6.8 percent of agricultural land in the West Bank is irrigated, and the same small percentage yields half of the agricultural produce in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This number suggests the staggering loss of economic opportunities in the agricultural sector, due solely to lost water on account of Israel’s restrictions and demolitions.”

There can clearly be said to be a systemic water war waged against a Palestinian population. This war in the long run will destroy the organic relationship that cities, towns, and villages have with local water resources and change once locally-managed water resources into a commodity – one that is, moreover, controlled by Israel. Today’s residents of Ramallah, for example, buy their water from Mekorot, the Israeli government-appointed water company. Water is no longer a community resource, and its commodification at the hands of Israel’s occupation is further changing the shape of Palestinian society.”

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