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Israel's threat to cut Gaza water supply would be 'complete catastrophe'

"Taking our water is not like taking a toy. Water is life, they cannot play with our lives like this," says Maher Najjar, deputy general director of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) of the recent Israeli threat to cut electricity, water and infrastructure services to the occupied Gaza Strip.

"Everything will be affected: drinking and washing water, sewage and sanitation, hospitals, schools and children," says Ahmed al-Amrain, head of power information at the Palestinian Energy and National Resources Authority (PENRA).

The Israeli Electric Company provides 60 per cent of the Strip's needs, paid by Palestinian customs taxes collected by the Israeli authorities.

Gaza buys 5 per cent from Egypt and tries to generate the remaining 35 per cent at Gaza's sole power plant, maimed by the 2006 Israeli bombing and destruction of its six transformers.

On Nov. 26, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, threatened to cut Israeli electricity, water and ties to Gaza's infrastructure serving the 1.6 million residents of the Gaza Strip. The threat is Israel's reply to reconciliation efforts between rival parties Hamas and Fatah, which have held recent meetings in which they pledged to work towards forming a unity government.

"This is the true meaning of collective punishment," says Jaber Wishah, deputy director for branches affairs at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). "Children, women, elderly, patients, students, all are subject to this threat."

Following the 2006 democratic elections which brought Hamas to power, Israel has imposed an increasingly severe siege on the Strip, depriving Palestinians of most essential and basic goods, including livestock, medicines, machinery and replacement parts, and the industrial diesel needed to run the power plant.

"Israel has been steadily cutting electricity and destroying infrastructure over the years, but this is the first time they have explicitly threatened to fully cut everything," says Wishah. "It is absurd to blackmail the population with their lives because of political issues."

It is also illegal.

Wishah and Israeli rights group Gisha note that Israel continues to militarily occupy and control the Gaza Strip, despite the 2005 pullout of Israeli colonists and military bases from the Strip.

According to international law, Gisha says, Israel is responsible for the well-being of the Strip's population, including ensuring electricity, water and a functioning infrastructure.

Under its siege, Israeli has since 2007 limited the amount of fuel and industrial diesel allowed to enter Gaza, resulting in daily power outages throughout the Strip, ranging from 8 to 12 hours, and interrupting water, sanitation, health and education services.

"Palestinian electricity technicians have asked Israeli government to repair a main line recently damaged, as has the Israeli Electric company. But the Israeli government refuses to do so," says Ahmed al-Amrain.

"The lack of electricity, he says, "will oblige families to buy diesel for small generators indoors, which can lead to serious accidents and burns."

More than 100 Palestinians died in 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, Oxfam reports, from generator- caused fires and carbon monoxide inhalation.

Generators do not suffice for hospitals, which need a constant supply of electricity.

While they allow some vital machinery to run during power outages, other services, like laundry, are not run on generators. "There is not enough electricity," says Amrain. "They are for emergencies only and are made to run for short periods, not continuously. They are absolutely not an alternative solution for electricity in the Gaza Strip."

"Generators are made to run for short periods, not continuously. They are absolutely not an alternative solution for electricity in the Gaza Strip." Blood plasma, medicines, hospital food, even cadavers, as Gisha points out, need electricity to be maintained at appropriate temperatures.

"It will be a complete catastrophe if Israel cuts the electricity. Half of the population would not have access to water," says Maher Najjar. Gaza has over the years suffered an increasingly alarming water crisis.

Currently 95 per cent of the ground water is undrinkable according to WHO standards, which sets acceptable chloride (salinity) levels at 250 mg/liter. "Gaza's average levels are between 800-1000 mg/l chloride due to sea water intrusion," says Najjar.

The WHO reports that nitrates, believed to be carcinogenic, are over 330 mg/l in the Strip, far exceeding the 50 mg/l accepted levels.

The sea water intrusion into ground water sources is a consequence of both over-extraction of Gaza's coastal aquifer and poor maintenance of the water lines, long-standing problems due to the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza.

"Since 2000 we have had plans to repair and expand water projects in Gaza, but until now only about seven of 100 projects have been completed," says Najjar.

Gisha notes that CMWU has been waiting for spare parts and materials, like pipes and filters, since June 2007, items banned by Israel under its siege on Gaza. This inability to maintain pipelines "caused an increase in rate of water loss in pipes from 30% in 2004 to 47% in 2009, increasing the need to pump more water," reports Gisha, which in turn "is likely to speed up the depletion and salinization of the aquifer."

According to Najjar, just 10 per cent of Gaza's 1.6 million residents get water every day. Another 40 per cent get water every two days, 40 per cent get water every three days, and 10 per cent get water once every four days.

The inability to consistently pump well water to water lines is compounded by the obstruction of natural water flow from the occupied West Bank into Gaza.

"Israel has drilled over 1,000 wells around the Gaza Strip for their own use. They cut the water flow before it even reaches Gaza," says Najjar.

While the amount of water supplied by Mekorot, Israel's national water company, is just 5 percent, it is the threat of Israel cutting electricity and infrastructural needs that most haunts Gaza residents. "Chlorine is vital for our water treatment. Without it, we cannot pump a drop off water," says Najjar.

Already, for want of adequate electricity and treatment facilities, up to 80 million litres of partially and non-treated sewage is pumped into Gaza's sea daily, raising nitrate and fecal bacteria levels and contributing to water-borne diseases.

In 2008, the WHO reported dangerous levels of faecal bacteria along a third of Gaza's coast. By 2010, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency reported that acute bloody diarrhoea and viral hepatitis remained the major causes of morbidity among refugees in the Strip.

"We need continuous electricity to pump waste-water from homes to sewage treatment plants," says Najjar. "Generators substitute during power cuts, but without the regular supply of electricity, waste will flood the streets."

In March 2007 (correction from previously stated August 2007), a sewage holding pool in Beit Lahiya overflowed, drowning five residents of the village nearby.

Hamas maintains that it would accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. These are borders which Israel has yet to define and continues to blur with expanding illegal Jewish settlements and occupation of Palestinian land.

"I think the Israelis are serious with their threat," says Wishah, "because they don't pay any attention to the international opinion, nor to international laws and conventions, like the Geneva Conventions, that they've signed, which forbid collective punishment. They feel they are above the law and beyond any legal pursuit."

Image: Gaza’s sole power plant still maimed by Israeli bombing in 2006. Photo by Eva Bartlett.

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