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Water and Suffering in Gaza
The water crisis, made worse by the war, goes back years—and Hamas is one of its main causes.
MORE THAN TWO WEEKS after the horrific Hamas raids in Israel, the anticipated Israeli ground offensive into Gaza has not begun and is reportedly indefinitely delayed. Meanwhile, international attention is still focused on the plight of the civilian population in Gaza, which is not only caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas but often deprived of basic necessities including water. Israel has been harshly criticized—by, among others, former President Barack Obama—for cutting off food, water, and electricity to Gaza’s population, a decision that Obama warned would not only cause suffering but “play into the hands of Israel’s enemies” by eroding support for the Jewish state. Meanwhile, defenders of Israel’s actions say that it does not owe water or electricity to Gaza since it has not been an occupying power in the sector since 2005—and that it certainly has no such obligations after being targeted for vicious attacks by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has the allegiance of a large portion of the population.
To ignore or dismiss human suffering in Gaza would be to allow war to harden one’s heart to an alarming degree. The crisis in the 140 square-mile strip, which is home to some two million people, certainly merits compassion. But that compassion must begin with a clear-eyed look at the causes and details of the crisis.
Let’s start with something underdiscussed in the commentary about Gaza: The water crisis there is not new, although it is far more acute now. In 2018, the Rand Corporation published a report called The Public Health Impacts of Gaza's Water Crisis. Its concluding section starkly warned that Gaza was “on the brink of a humanitarian collapse” and had “an acute energy, water, and sanitation problem.” The emergency, the Rand authors noted, included not only severe shortages of potable water in Gaza but a lack of wastewater sanitation, which resulted in a massive flow of untreated sewage into the Mediterranean, “creating extreme public health hazards in Gaza, Israel, and Egypt.” Among the factors contributing to this dire situation, the report noted, were a “failure of governance” by the Hamas-controlled quasi-state in Gaza; tensions with Israel (including three wars between 2009 and 2014); the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt resulting in severe restrictions on travel, import, and export; and “a power struggle” between the the rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, which respectively control Gaza and the West Bank.
So what do we mean when we say that Israel has cut off water to Gaza? According to CNN and other outlets, Israel normally provides less than one-tenth of Gaza’s water supply, although some Israeli media estimate the figure at one-third. The principal source of Gaza’s water is wells that tap into the coastal aquifer; much of the drinking water is untreated and, according to the Rand report, often contaminated by sewage and agricultural runoff. In recent years, the aquifer has also been vulnerable to severe overpumping, further decreasing water quality. But the wells of Gaza will not work if there’s no electricity to power the pumps, and a significant amount of Gaza’s electricity and fuel come from Israel, which has cut off the supply. Decontamination efforts and efforts to obtain potable water from desalination plants, always affected by Gaza’s chronic power shortages, are likewise largely ineffectual in the present crisis.
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GAZA’S LONG-TERM WATER CRISIS has to a large extent been driven by the Hamas terror regime’s hostilities not only with Israel, but with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas:
In 2015, Egypt flooded the Gaza smuggling tunnels with sewage, worsening the water contamination problem.
Two years later, the struggle between Hamas and Fatah over political power turned into a struggle over electrical power when the Palestinian Authority decided to stop paying Israel and Egypt to supply electricity to Gaza. (Gaza was then getting about one-third of its electricity from Israel.) Reports on the crisis noted that the electricity cuts were also affecting the water supply since many water pumps became nonoperational.
In 2020, Gaza’s only power plant shut down after Israel cut off fuel supply in response to Hamas’s launch of incendiary balloons across the border, causing brush fires in southern Israel.
Then, during the escalation of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in 2021, five of the ten high-voltage lines delivering electricity from Israel to Gaza were damaged by Hamas rockets fired at Israel. It took two weeks to repair the power lines, both because of the fighting and because the Israel Electric Corporation’s workers’ union initially balked at carrying out the repairs until Hamas returned a civilian hostage and the remains of two IDF soldiers killed seven years earlier. Even after the repairs were completed, power disruptions continued—and with them, severe problems with the supply of potable water.
The Rand report noted that some hope for resolving the Gaza water crisis appeared in talks between Hamas and Israel about normalizing relations. But as we now know, Hamas was using these talks as a ploy to lull Israel’s vigilance while preparing for a massive assault.
ON OCTOBER 11, THE LONE GAZA POWER PLANT shut down again because it ran out of fuel due to Israel’s imposition of a total blockade in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks. Per capita water usage in Gaza is reportedly down to 3 liters per day; the World Health Organization sets the norm at 100 liters and the bare minimum at 50 liters. (That figure includes not only drinking water but the water needed for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation.) While Israel has resumed some water supply to the southern part of Gaza and is allowing relief supplies to get through, including fuel for basic necessities, there is little question that for many people the situation is desperate. There are reports of people drinking seawater, or using contaminated water for both drinking and hygiene, with potentially devastating health consequences. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.
While the people of Gaza are suffering, the militants of Hamas have plenty of fuel—a fact that is difficult to rebut even when it’s Israeli government spokespeople who point it out. Some of that fuel has been apparently stolen from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency offices in Gaza, though the UNRWA, which initially disclosed the looting, later awkwardly walked back that claim. In any case, Hamas seems to have enough fuel not only to barrage Israel with rockets and to power motorized hang gliders, but also to maintain a network of underground tunnels with ventilation, air conditioning, and all basic necessities including drinking water and sanitation, as recently released 85-year-old hostage Yocheved Lifshitz has confirmed.
Discussing Lifshitz’s account on CNN, reporter Erin Burnett expressed amazement at how well-stocked the tunnels were with everything needed to keep the hostages alive and healthy, as well as ensure comfortable conditions for the Hamas men themselves: “It is pretty stunning, because you’ve got to contrast that with what’s happening above the ground, right—where there isn’t water . . . they’re using toilet water, there is no morphine for any kind of amputations; antibiotics, no; but Hamas has stockpiled all of that.” Of course, it’s difficult to tell how large the Hamas stockpiles of these essential resources are; they may not be enough to help all of Gaza’s two million civilians. But whatever their scale, they are at the moment at the service only of Hamas.
The Gaza water crisis is very real (even if we cannot rely on Hamas’s figures to understand its scope). As part of the international community of liberal democracies and civilized nations, Israel must do everything it can safely do to allow humanitarian relief to reach those affected. Withholding water as collective punishment of the Gaza population shocks the conscience, and withholding it to pressure Hamas into releasing the hostages is both morally questionable and misguided since neither Hamas leaders nor their murderous “fighters” are the ones suffering. All the same, while the suffering civilians deserve our sympathy, we must not lose sight of the fact that their suffering is caused by Hamas’s long-term strategy of waging war on Israel instead of providing for the needs of the people in Gaza. What’s more, much of that suffering could be alleviated right now if Hamas chose to do so.