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Israel Is Using Water As a Weapon of War

A ‘humanitarian pause’ in Gaza will mean little for Palestinians fighting dehydration and disease — what is needed is an end to the Israeli siege.

(Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images)

‘My biggest fear as a humanitarian assistance provider,’ said Hiba Tibi, CARE’s Gaza and West Bank Country Director, ‘is that waterborne diseases and dehydration will be more destructive than the bombing.’ CARE, the international humanitarian agency, warns that a lack of clean water in Gaza is leading to the spread of deadly diseases such as acute diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and measles. Children under the age of five particularly vulnerable.

Since October 9, Israel has imposed a total blockade on Gaza, cutting off fuel, food, medicine, electricity, and water. Blocked from leaving this tiny strip of land, 2.3 million Palestinians are trapped with limited resources. Over the past few weeks, Israel has targeted crucial infrastructure such as water tanks, solar panels, and fishing boats, making already desperate circumstances worse. Israel’s total water blockade of Gaza, which is an internationally recognised crime against humanity and recognised as a prohibited war crime, is also a measure that constitutes collective punishment.

The amount of drinking water that Israel is allowing through the Rafah crossing as humanitarian aid is only available to a mere four percent of the population. Palestinians risk their lives to queue for hours in order to find clean water. The conditions are dehumanising and brutal. Ahmed Alboraey, who was forcibly displaced from his home in the north of Gaza, documented the daily struggles of finding water while sheltering in different places to avoid air strikes from Israeli war planes. ‘This is better than nothing,’ he said, drinking contaminated water after searching for hours.

With the Gaza Strip facing a dire water crisis due to a crippling power outage and the scarcity of fuel, the only water desalination plants were rendered inoperable, forcing residents to rely on contaminated sources or existing small water tanks. As a result, some residents are resorting to drinking seawater, putting their health at risk. In some cases, solid waste trucks are used to transport the seawater. However, this excess of salt in the sea water causes further dehydration and damage to the kidneys and, for those without access to clean water, dehydration becomes a life-threatening concern. The body loses water at an accelerated pace to expel salt, resulting in severe dehydration, with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

According to the World Health Organisation, between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day – for drinking, showering, hand washing, and cooking – are needed ‘to ensure that most basic needs are met, and few health concerns arise.’ In Gaza, this number is estimated to be just 3 litres a day.

Dr. Mohanad Abunada, a Palestinian Dutch national whose family are all in Gaza, says that where his family is sheltering, ‘the situation has become so disastrous that people are abstaining from eating and drinking (if available) in order not to have to use the bathroom, and already they do not have enough food or water. So you can imagine what malnutrition this can cause.’ This echoes the conditions of shelters and homes all throughout the Strip.

While hospitals overflow and bombardments continue, Palestinians are struggling to maintain hygiene or fight off the rampant spread of diseases and infections caused by unsanitary conditions. In refugee camps and shelters, the situation is even more dire, with hundreds of people sharing one or two bathrooms, which is already causing an increase in skin diseases, respiratory infections, and diarrheal diseases, particularly among newborns and children.

Gaza’s water crisis did not begin in October. Since 2007, Israel has put Gaza under siege. The blockade has had a devastating impact on the territory’s water infrastructure and accessibility. The blockade’s restrictions on the import of essential materials, such as water treatment chemicals, spare parts for water pumps, and fuel for power generators, have severely hampered the maintenance and operation of water treatment plants, desalination facilities, and sewage treatment systems. Additionally, Israeli military operations over the years have repeatedly damaged or destroyed water infrastructure, including wells, water pipes, treatment plants, and desalination facilities.

These repeated attacks have disrupted the flow of water to communities and exacerbated the already dire situation. The combined effects of the blockade, infrastructure damage, wastewater treatment restrictions, and agricultural land destruction have significantly impacted the quality of water in Gaza. The Israeli government has justified its long-standing restrictions on water resources and infrastructure in Gaza as a security measure to prevent the import of weapons and ammunition into Gaza. However, these restrictions have had a disproportionate impact on the civilian population of Gaza, causing immense suffering.

More than two million people have no access to safe drinking water, nor water for bathing and sanitation, or for cleaning wounds or other medical purposes, losing 97 percent of their daily consumption of water. This lack of access to water is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, creating disastrous ripple effects on physical and mental health, sanitation, the environment, and any future for Palestinians in Gaza.

While the immediate effects of the water crisis must be acknowledged and reversed with urgency, the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a symptom of a more intentional strategy by Israel to push Palestinians out of their land. With over 1.2 million Palestinians in the north of the Strip already being forcibly displaced, over 65 percent of the population. Residential homes, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, mosques, and infrastructure have been targeted and many destroyed, and the continued blockade, Israel is intentionally pushing to Gaza completely unliveable for the Palestinians living there. Palestinians do not want to leave their homes, and those who stay behind, do so knowing they might die.

Israel agreeing to several hour ‘humanitarian pauses’ for residents in the north of Gaza to flee their homes for the south, while then bombarding the south, is a far cry from anything humanitarian. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has long been a tool of Israeli colonialism. By pushing Palestinians in Gaza to the south, it is seen to be the hope of the Israeli government to push them into the Sinai desert, if Egypt will agree.

What this fails to address, is that Israel is ultimately not concerned with where Palestinians are pushed to. Even as the world looks to Gaza, the Israeli government has escalated state violence, home demolitions, arrests, torture, and killings of Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli government officials pushed for ‘safe zones’ near illegal settlements, which would mean more Palestinians will be displaced as a product of ongoing settler colonialism. The goal of the Israeli government to systematically ethnically cleansing the Palestinians from their lands has continued throughout Palestine.

The international community has a responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and Palestinian human rights, and the bare minimum is to provide complete humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. At time of writing, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a four-day ceasefire. But a ceasefire doesn’t mean the water crisis will go away. In order to truly alleviate this crisis, the inhumane siege on Gaza must end.