Director’s Blog June 2017: Gaza, a looming humanitarian disaster

The United Nations Middle East Envoy has issued a warning that urgent measures are needed in order to prevent an environmental and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip which will impact both Palestinians and Israelis. Gazans currently receive only a few hours of electricty each day, and a decision by the Palestinian Authority to reduce the amount of electricity purchased for Gaza from Israel will create a downward spiral causing civilian hardship, limited hospital services, a lack of drinking water, and a negative impact on the food supply. One critical consequence is the cessation of sewage treatment resulting in tons of raw sewage pouring into the Mediterranean Sea.

How did we get here? From the time of the dissolution of the British Mandate and the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. Israel took control of the Gaza Strip in 1967 and began establishing Israeli settlements. Due to the ongoing loss of human life as a result of a guerilla war fought by Palestinians against the Israeli military and civilians in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a unilateral decision in 2005, to disengage from Gaza, abandoning the settlement endeavor and withdrawing Israeli military forces to its borders with Gaza. Some 8,000 Israeli settlers were evacuated and 21 settlements were dismantled by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. 1.8 million Palestinians live in a 365 km2 (140 mi2) area. Some claim that Israel’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza without coordination with the Fatah dominated PLO created the impression that the withdrawal was the result of Hamas’s guerilla warfare with Israel and led to the Hamas election victory in 2006. Since 2006, Hamas has dominated the Gaza Strip, though since 2007, the PLO has also claimed authority over Gaza. For the past 10 years, in parallel to a series of military conflicts with Israel, usually preceded by rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilian targets, a variety of governments have been established, some of which have been unity governments between the PLO and Hamas. In addition, both Egypt and Israel have blockaded the flow of goods into Gaza. Since October 2016, a new Hamas government was established with no PLO representation. This situation has created renewed conflict between the two organizations with the PLO, based in Ramallah, using its control over international funds and tax money to put pressure on the Hamas government, by cutting off salaries to government employees and refusing to pay for the electricity supplied by Israel to the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas government has done little to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza who suffer from a lack of potable water, electricity and proper sewage disposal. The World Bank has reported that Gaza’s unemployment rate is as high as 43%. The amount of desalinated water currently available is only a small amount of the 150,000 cubic meters of water needed daily. Most water in Gaza is coming from the shared coastal aquifer with Israel which due to over-pumping has led to sea water seepage making most water in Gaza undrinkable. The threat of further reductions in the electric supply due to downed power lines from Egypt, dysfunctional or destroyed infrastructure within Gaza, and a cutback in Israeli supplied electricity due to the PLO dispute with Hamas will only make life in the Gaza Strip more unbearable. Things have only worsened for Gazans since the 2014 war. One consequence of the scarcity of electricity is the lack of wastewater treatment capacity resulting in tons of raw sewage pouring into the Mediterranean Sea and washing up on the beaches of Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. Israel’s complicity in the reduction of the electric supply and its inaction in finding a solution for Gaza’s chronic power shortages will only serve to pollute its own beaches and endanger its own drinking water.

The looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza will be a central theme during the second annual Cross-border Environmental Cooperation Conference which will be held in September 2017 at the Arava Institute. The conference and the Track II Environmental Forum afford Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and international stakeholders the opportunity to engage in a productive dialogue in a safe environment away from the political pressures of the media and the public spotlight. The goal of the conference and the ongoing meetings held by the forum is to look for win-win solutions to environmental challenges such as those faced in Gaza. Hopefully, the discussions will lead to quick actions in time to avert some of the suffering faced by the people of Gaza.

This week, the Arava Institute, invited 10 Palestinian participants from Gaza to a Food, Energy, Water Security for Community Development Workshop. The workshop was designed for young professionals and is a collaborative effort with the University of Colorado’s Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department and Professor Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders USA, and co-founder of Engineers Without Borders International. Participants would have been trained on complex system modeling software, and acquire skills to enable them to go back to their home communities and find small-scale local solutions to food, water and energy scarcity. Unfortunately, most of the permits granted could not be issued due to complications arising from the program being a pioneering and collaborative one. A smaller workshop was conducted, in the West Bank, with Professor Amadei, focusing on skill development for young professionals in community focused development. A productive time was spent with the few Gazans who were able to come to the Arava and the current students. We will continue our efforts to reach out to the people of Gaza.

Submitted by David Lehrer

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