"Disengagement" v. the Environment: Stripping the Gaza Strip
August 01, 2005
Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has negatively impacted the environment. Israel’s evacuation of settlements (colonies) and permanent military facilities in the Gaza Strip will either exacerbate Gaza’s environmental crisis or set the stage for a fresh start.
During 38 years of military occupation in Gaza, Israel has confiscated Palestinian land, illegally built Israeli settlements (colonies), and exploited Palestinian resources throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Under international law, Israel must make full reparation for its injuries to Palestinian territory and people and/or provide compensation for any damage done. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) most recently affirmed this principle with respects to the regime of the Wall: In July, 2004 the ICJ called on Israel to dismantle all sections of the Wall built on occupied Palestinian territory and to compensate Palestinians for any harms resulting from the Wall and its associated regime.
During “Disengagement,” settlement rubble—which contains asbestos—might present serious health risks to Gazans. After “Disengagement,” Israel will need to work with Palestinians to immediately resolve long-standing environmental issues related to water and wastewater disposal—many of which are the result of misguided Israeli policies throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.
Now, Palestinians seek to transform Israel’s unilateral “Disengagement” into an opportunity for a peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all. In the meantime, Palestinians need to prevent any further damage to the environment so that they may soon have a sound—and clean—basis on which to build such a future.
1. Quenching Gaza’s Thirst
Water is scarce in the Middle East. Pure water is even scarcer. After 38 years of Israeli occupation and Israel’s exploitation of Gaza’s resources, this is particularly true in the Gaza Strip.
A. Scarcity of Water
Gaza’s shortage of clean water mainly stems from Israel’s policy of taking Palestinian water for Israeli use while preventing Palestinians from accessing their own water or independently developing alternate resources.
Now, Gaza’s main source of water is the so-called “Gaza Aquifer.” The Gaza Aquifer is actually a geographic portion of the Coastal Aquifer, which stretches from Egypt in the south to Haifa in the north. Under international law, water from the Coastal Aquifer should be equitably and reasonably allocated to all interested parties.
This means that water from the Coastal Aquifer, like all other aquifers in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, must be shared on principles of equity between Palestinians and Israelis. However, Israel takes more than its fair share of water from the Coastal Aquifer in three ways:
Israel restricts Palestinian abstraction of water from the aquifer;
Israel uses the settlements ( colonies) as a base from which to extract quality groundwater; and
Israel pumps water around Gaza, particularly to the Gaza Strip’s east, before that water has naturally flowed into Gaza’s aquifer.
The sustainable yield of the Gaza Strip aquifer is estimated at between 50 and 60 million cubic meters (MCM) per year. “Sustainable yield” refers to the maximum amount of water that can be extracted from the aquifer without causing damage to the aquifer. The volume of water extracted from the Coastal Aquifer beneath the Gaza Strip, however, presently amounts to 140 MCM/year, or nearly three-times the sustainable yield. The over-extraction of water from the aquifer results in water salination: the lower that water table flows, the easier it is for seawater to mix with the aquifer’s reserves. This is accompanied by contamination—from Israeli and Palestinian sources—which typically makes the water unfit to drink, and often unfit for agriculture as well.
Yet the solution to Gaza’s thirst cannot be a reduction in water consumption. Per capita water consumption for domestic purposes already fails to meet the bare minimum level of 100/liters a day established by the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, Gaza’s population of illegal settlers consumes 700% more water per capita than that permitted local Palestinians—or at least 4 times the WHO minimum.
The solution to the water crisis in the Gaza Strip and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory is simple:
Stop Israel’s theft of Palestinians’ fair share of common water resources throughout the occupied Palestinian territory;
Allow Palestinians to access this water and to freely generate alternative water resources; and
Create a water a link between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
B. Impurity of Water
Perhaps the most serious environmental problem in the occupied Gaza Strip is not the shortage of water, but the deterioration of its quality. This deterioration in water quality directly leads to deterioration of public health. Around 60% of diseases in the Gaza Strip are a result of poor water quality.
There are three primary reasons for the deterioration of water quality in the Gaza Strip: (i) Israel’s extraction of Palestinians’ share of water resources for exclusive Israeli use, (ii) Israel’s unwillingness to allow Palestinians to develop waste water and solid waste treatment facilities in the Gaza Strip, and (iii) Israel’s unwillingness to let Palestinians develop alternate water resources, which would include building water link between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now, Israel’s illegal water policy leaves no option for Palestinians but to over-extract water from the limited sources to which Israel permits access, further contributing to the contamination of Palestinian water.
Palestine does not need to be a wasteland; instead it could be an oasis. International law recognizes the Palestinian right to the equitable and reasonable allocation of shared water resources. For Palestinian health and agriculture, and for a future viable Palestinian state, Palestinians simply need their fair share of water of acceptable quality and the ability to control their own natural resources.
Israel’s failure to provide Palestinians with adequate wastewater treatment facilities—or to allow Palestinians to develop their own—has significantly contributed to Gaza’s environmental and public health crises, including the deterioration of water quality.
In Gaza, approximately 60% of the population is connected to sewage networks (UN, 2003). Refugee camps—especially larger ones—are not equipped with sewerage facilities. As a result, raw sewage often flows through the streets.
In addition to the absence of sewage networks in many Palestinian neighborhoods, the Gaza Strip also lacks efficient sewage treatment facilities. For instance, the Beit Lahia wastewater treatment plant was designed to process 5,000 cubic meters per day; currently, it receives roughly 12,000 cubic meters per day of raw sewage. Consequently, a lake of sewage measuring 40 hectares has formed, polluting the Gazan aquifer and representing a major health and environmental hazard.1
Every year, a large volume of wastewater leaks into the portion of the Coastal Aquifer found beneath the Gaza Strip. This continues to degrade the only major source of drinking water to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Historically, the settlements have exacted a direct toll on Gaza’s environment as well. For example, in March of 2001, a sewage treatment facility serving Israel’s settlements burst. Roughly 3.5 MCM of wastewater swamped farmland, flooded homes, and toppled 30 vehicles. Scores of Palestinians were injured and losses were estimated in hundreds of
1. United Nations Environment Program (2003) millions of US dollars.
Reports suggest that the Israeli army evacuated settlers from the area before the rupture; Palestinians were not informed.
Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, need a fresh start. Since Israel will still occupy the Gaza Strip after “Disengagement,” controlling every good, person, or resource to enter or leave, Gaza’s water crisis may not improve.
To avoid further deterioration of Gaza’s environment and Gazan’s public health, Israel must allow Palestinians and the international community to develop an improved wastewater infrastructure. Additionally, Israel must allow Palestinians their equitable and reasonable allocation of shared water resources, to ensure the protection of Palestinians basic rights.
2. The Disposal of Wastewaters
International law provides the way. The “day after” “Disengagement” provides the opportunity.
3. Asbestos and Settlements
Israel has announced that it will dismantle its settlement (colony) housing units, military installations, and other “sensitive structures” in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank during “Disengagement.” One particularly harmful substance used in pre-fabricated settlement units is asbestos. Asbestos is widely recognized as a cancer-causing agent. While asbestos presents no serious threat to human health when left undisturbed, dust containing the material may cause lung cancer when inhaled.
Should Israel demolish settlements in a fashion that allows asbestos fibers to be released into the air, thousands of Palestinian (and many Israelis) may eventually develop cancer. For this reason, Israel must dismantle its illegal settlements (colonies) in a responsible and controlled fashion so as not to create another public health hazard in occupied Palestinian territory.
4. The Disposal of Rubble
Just as toxic substances found in settlement rubble threaten Gaza’s environment and the public health of its citizens, so to does the sheer volume of rubble that Israel expects to generate with the demolition of its settlements.
International law requires that Israel restore illegally confiscated property to its original condition.
Israel estimates that the residential buildings in the settlements will generate an estimated 820,000m³ in compacted material when demolished, equivalent to some 1,200,000m³ of transportable material. It would require some 61,620 truck-load equivalents to remove this quantity of material. Israel’s failure to abide by its legal responsibilities, therefore, would prove detrimental to Gaza’s environment both because the amount of rubble that will accumulate from Israel’s 21 settlements (colonies) in the Gaza Strip is significant, and because some of it is also toxic in substance (see above:Asbestos and Settlements). Since Israel is legally obliged by law to restore Gaza’s land to its original condition, Israel cannot leave without finding a way to safely remove the rubble left from its dismantled settlements. The same principle obliges Israel to rebuild destroyed structures, replant olive trees, and reestablish grazing fields, for example.
The “day after” “Disengagement” does indeed provide an opportunity. To provide Palestinians a real chance to seize that opportunity, Israel needs to do its share by undoing the damage of 38 years of military occupation, colonization and the exploitation of Gaza’s resources—an expense paid out of the pockets and with the health of Gaza’s 1.3 million Christian and Muslim Palestinians.