International community says wants to help, calls on Israel to ease restrictions
The 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, according to international experts as well as Israeli and Palestinian analysts. Gaza’s economy has been devastated by repeated conflicts with Israel, and among other concerns, drinking water is running out. “These people are without water and without sewage treatment,” Steen Lau Jorgensen, the World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told The Media Line. “When 97 per cent of the water is not drinkable we need to do something.”
He said the World Bank has spent $100 million over the past ten years to build a sewage treatment plant in the northern Gaza Strip but Israel has raised obstacles such as preventing a steady supply of electricity from reaching the enclave. Israel suffers as well, he contends. Israel’s desalination plant in the city of Ashqelon — just eight miles from the Gaza border — was forced to close recently because so much raw sewage was flowing from there into Israel.
Former Palestinian Authority Water Minister Shaddad Attili said Palestinians in Gaza buy water rather than drink water from the tap that is polluted. Those who can’t afford to buy water, drink the tainted water and many suffer health problems as a result. He said that although Israel withdrew its soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel remains responsible because it controls its points of entry and exit.
Since Hamas forcibly took over after vanquishing security forces of the Palestinian Authority in 2007, Israel has limited entry of many goods into Gaza, especially anything that Hamas could use for weapons. Israel, like much of the international community, says Hamas is a terrorist organization and will negotiate only with the PA and its dominant faction, Fatah.
“Water is a basic human need,” Attili said. “Forget about Hamas, Fatah, and a two-state solution. There are almost two million people in Gaza. The children didn’t choose to live there. We shouldn’t punish them – we should give them help and hope.”
Attili was speaking at a conference called Saving Gaza sponsored by IPCRI, a joint Israeli-Palestinian non-governmental organization. He quoted a report by the United Nations that predicted by 2020, there would be no drinkable water in Gaza at all, and the damage done to the local aquifer would be irreversible. “It has been bad for years but now it is reaching a crisis situation,” Maher Elkurd, chairman of the Economic Committee of the Palestinian Authority told The Media Line. “Israel must do something to solve this situation.”
Over the past 20 years, economic growth in Gaza has stagnated, registering a mere two per cent rise.
“That’s not two per cent a year, but two percent total,” Jorgensen of the World Bank said. “Over the same period the West bank grew 250 percent. This is the result of the blockade of both Israel and Egypt.”
Israel and Egypt have strictly limited passage out of Gaza through the gateways they respectively control. Egypt, which periodically opens its border with the Gaza Strip for limited periods of time, has announced that it will open its border with Gaza for four days next week because of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
Kobi Michael, a researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) said that Israel has a “moral imperative” to rebuild Gaza after its last round of fighting against Hamas in 2014 which destroyed thousands of homes. He said it will take years to rebuild Gaza. At the same time, he said, it is not right to blame Israel for all of Gaza’s woes.
“The biggest contributor to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is Hamas,” he said. “We need a reliable and responsible partner to deal with. Anything that Israel does to rebuild Gaza strengthens Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.