People still come to watch the waves. They still stop to savor the salty breeze. But these days, many stop short of swimming. Even in the heat of summer, to swim is now to tempt fate.
“This is the only place to exhale, in Gaza,” said Rawya Thalenty, 37, a mother of six, sitting on the beach with a friend on a recent evening and gesturing at the water. “There are no options here in Gaza. This is truly the only place we can go.”
More than a decade into a strict land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt to exert pressure on Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, the enclave is in the midst of a water crisis born of the region’s combustible politics.
The three wars Hamas has waged with Israel since 2009 have devastated the Gaza Strip’s already weak sanitation system.
On top of that, Gaza’s sewage treatment plants sit idle many hours a day without the electricity to power them. That’s because the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, has sought to undermine popular support for its rival Hamas by halting payments to Israel for the fuel used to generate electricity in Gaza.
Israel has played power politics as well. Earlier this week, following an uptick in rockets fired into Israel from Gaza over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the limited amount of diesel fuel Israel ships for electricity generation to be cut in half.
Some studies have estimated that as a result of inadequate treatment, up to 108,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage is now discarded directly into the sea every day, and reserves of potable water have significantly diminished. A public health emergency now looms for the nearly 2 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip, many of whom are refugees and the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war that established Israel’s independence.
According to the World Health Organization, waterborne diseases constitute about one-fourth of all illnesses in the Gaza Strip. A 2018 study by the Rand Corp. was likewise clear in its conclusion, predicting an imminent spike in bacterial, parasitic and viral infections such as cholera, giardia and viral meningitis, respectively.
“We’re just sitting,” said Jabar Shamalakh, 21, sprawled on a plastic chair at the beach on a recent afternoon, at the center of a circle of his friends. He said it had been five years since he had been in the water. For his friend Loay Hamouda, 23, it was three years. For Ahmad Arafat, 21, a year and a half.
“It’s deeply frustrating,” Arafat said. “I miss the sea. I used to surf sometimes. But now I can’t.” Shamalakh paused for a moment when asked what he missed most about feeling the water on his skin.
“Joy,” he said. “When it’s clear, we feel the joy.”
The sheer amount of sewage washing into the sea has had consequences for the wider region — including for Israel, where the nearby coastal city of Ashkelon has experienced the effects of Gaza’s sanitation breakdown. A study published in March by EcoPeace Middle East demonstrated that sewage from Gaza had washed up on nearby beaches, as well as interfered with the operations of Ashkelon’s desalination plant.
Earlier this year, Israel pledged to build both a fourth water pipeline into Gaza as well as a new sewage pipeline to treat some of Gaza’s waste on the Israeli side of the border. The Persian Gulf country of Qatar, meanwhile, has tried to address the electricity shortage in Gaza but has not supplied enough money to pay for the estimated 400 to 600 megawatts the enclave needs every day.
Engineers in Gaza argue that Israel’s blockade has made adequate sewage treatment almost impossible.
Housam Badawi, an electrochemical engineer, is overseeing the construction of a new central Gaza waste-management plant, a project that was initially slated for completion in 2005.
The reason for the delay, Badawi said, is that Israeli authorities have classified certain items and materials required for completion as “dual use,” meaning they could also be used to build weapons.
The new facility is funded by KfW, a German development bank, which will continue to pay a fraction of operating costs upon completion. Thomas Gaier, a German project manager on the site, said the work is now being hamstrung because of a dispute over measuring instruments, which he said Israeli authorities have held up for more than three months.
COGAT, the organization within the Israeli Defense Ministry that coordinates Israel’s activities in Palestinian territories, confirmed in a statement that the measuring devices were classified as “advanced dual use technological equipment.” But COGAT also said that KfW had been granted a permit for this equipment but had failed to procure the devices within the required 30-day window after the permit was issued.
The delays on the new facility, slated to process 60,000 cubic meters of sewage, have contributed to the unabated flow of sewage into the sea, with three other plants able to treat only about 85,000 cubic meters of the daily waste.
Most Gazans seem aware of the pollution flowing into the Mediterranean, but many cannot bring themselves to abandon the beach.
“The beach is the only source of life for Gazans — especially when the electricity is out in their homes,” said Abulraheem Abu Qumbuz, director of the Gaza municipality’s water sanitation department. “We consider it as a lifeline in the summer particularly.”
In some areas, the putrid stench is inescapable. And if the crowds still come in the heat of summer, they mostly just sit and watch. Young children do still frolic in the water, but only because their parents say they have neither the resolve nor the heart to stop them, regardless of sanitation worries.
“I’m concerned about it, but I can’t prevent the kids, because they see others swimming and they just start crying,” said Alaa Louh, 30, who was sitting on the sand, watching her two young sons and daughter splash in the waves.
Middle-class and well-to-do Gazans tend to do their swimming at private pools, which they can access with a day pass at one of the strip’s few hotels. Or they may opt for more privacy and rent coveted chalets that come with pools, compounds that can cost between $100 and $200 per day. For most, that is out of the question.
“If I could afford to go to a swimming pool — or a chalet — I wouldn’t hesitate. But I can’t,” said Mohammad Tota, 19, who was swimming for the first time this year in what he said was a celebration for moving on to his university studies.
For him, the liberating sensation of being in the water was worth any price. “Playing in the water and feeling the waves releases the stress and lets you forget your problems,” Tota said. “It reminds me of my childhood and better times.”
Correction: Some 53 percent of Gaza residents live below the global poverty line. An earlier version of this article misstated the figure.