Fire and Water in Gaza

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By Maher Najjar
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

GAZA CITY -- On Sept. 19, the Israeli government declared the Gaza Strip "hostile territory" and authorized steps to punish its civilian population. It decided that every Qassam rocket fired into Israel would carry a price tag: cutting the supply of electricity and fuel that Israel sells to Gaza. This assumes that disrupting civilian life in Gaza will have positive political results for Israel.

Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been living with collective punishment for some time. We have endured years of border closures, aerial attacks and military operations -- measures Israel has always explained as militarily necessary. But now, Israeli politicians claim it is legitimate to deprive all of Gaza's civilians of basic needs.

Israel controls Gaza's borders and the movement of all people and goods. Since Hamas came to power in June, Israel has tightened its siege. It has banned raw materials for manufacturing and construction; only basic foodstuffs are permitted into Gaza, and exports have been halted. Gaza's economy is suffocating: Since June, 85 percent of its factories and 95 percent of its construction projects have been paralyzed. More than 70,000 people have lost their jobs. A million and a half people are locked in a pressure cooker in one of the world's most densely populated areas. Stripped of the ability to travel, receive goods or engage in productive work, Gaza's residents have become dependent on Western and Islamic aid organizations.

Disrupting the supply of electricity and fuel will first and foremost affect medical devices, refrigerators, operating-room lighting and other essential systems.

Cutting fuel and electricity threatens to create a water and sewage crisis in the Gaza Strip and surrounding areas. Power is needed to run treatment plants, pump water to homes and pump sewage away from populated areas. Since Israel began restricting fuel supplies on Oct. 28, I have had difficulty purchasing the full amount of fuel needed to power Gaza's water system. Early this month, I stopped operating seven wells that provided drinking water to 35,000 people. Last week, I stopped operating three other wells and two sewage pumping stations, serving 50,000 people. Already, more than 15 percent of Gaza's residents do not receive an adequate supply of water to their homes.

In the past few months, Israel has not allowed into Gaza the spare parts and supplies needed to prevent the collapse of the water and sanitary systems. There is a risk that sewage will contaminate the groundwater, making clean water even scarcer, and spill into the sea. Eight months ago, in the northern region of Beit Lahiya, five people died and 25 were injured when the wall of a long-neglected sewage pool collapsed, flooding homes with raw sewage. The risk of more such catastrophes intensifies daily.

In collectively punishing Gazans, there is, of course, a risk for "collective punishment" of Israelis, too. Gaza and Israel share a coastline, and epidemics do not abide by the fence that Israel's military has built around Gaza.

Secure access to clean water is a basic right, a fact that Israeli decision makers seem to be ignoring.

Gaza has no way to receive fuel except via Israel, and there is no substitute for the 63 percent of Gaza's electricity that is supplied by Israel and paid for with Palestinian taxes.

Last month, I petitioned Israel's Supreme Court, together with the Israeli human rights group Gisha and nine other organizations, to stop the military from disrupting the supply of electricity and fuel to Gaza. We -- Palestinians and Israelis jointly -- asked the court not to let the military punish Gaza residents by depriving us of vital services, including a threatened cut in electricity that would begin Sunday.

Local experts, international aid organizations, and many in the Israeli legal and defense communities have warned that cutting fuel and electricity is a dangerous and counterproductive policy -- one that will not stop the Qassam rockets.

Today, the United States is hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders, among others, for peace talks in Annapolis that are supposed to be based on confidence-building measures. As an ally of Israel and a broker of peace in the region, the United States should encourage Israel to act in the best interest of all concerned. The Bush administration should make it clear that Israel cannot offer peace with one hand while its other hand turns off the electricity in Gaza.

The majority of the 1.5 million men, women and children living in Gaza do not fire Qassam rockets. Most of us want normal lives, starting with the ability to provide for ourselves. We want to live in peace with our neighbors. We hope that Israel will realize, before it is too late, that in Gaza, playing with water is playing with fire.

The author is deputy director of Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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