Joel Roskin

Displaced Gazans could be in a far safer area – why aren’t they?

The Al-Mawasi Strip was deemed most suited as a humanitarian zone. Instead, encampments are set up near Hamas installations
Tents and makeshift shelters at a camp for displaced Gazans in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 13, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)
Tents and makeshift shelters at a camp for displaced Gazans in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 13, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

On October 17, ten days after the Hamas massacre in southwestern Israel of over 1,200 Israelis and people from over 40 nationalities, the Israel Defense Forces announced the location of a humanitarian zone where “international humanitarian aid will be provided as needed.” This decision followed several days of negotiations with Egypt, the US and others to create a safe zone for fleeing Gazans who evacuated their homes that were in Hamas-infested areas, namely in the northern Gaza Strip and other urban areas. The humanitarian zone was established in the Al-Mawasi Strip, an area controlled by the sedentary Al-Mawasi Bedouin tribe, in the southwestern corner of the Gaza Strip, only approximately 3.5 km from downtown Khan Yunis.

The Al-Mawasi Strip, one of the less densely populated zones in the Gaza Strip, is the most suitable area in the Strip to provide safe haven for displaced Gaza residents. The setting is a rather flat, sandy lowland between the beach and a low sandstone ridge 1-2 km inland, where Israeli agriculture thrived until 2005 and today serves as a Hamas terror-training zone. The Strip, approximately 1 km wide stretches parallel to the beach for approximately 15 km and is the most distant part of Gaza from the armistice line (border) with Israel and thus does not attract both Hamas and Israeli fire. Assuming the development of a tent city allocating 10 square meters per capita (including open space), the Strip can allocate for up to nearly two million refugees.

Winter rainfall in Al-Mawasi is relatively low (around 200-250 mm a year within the Gaza Strip) and the temperature is mild. Furthermore, the substrate of pure sand allows for immediate infiltration of rainwater with limited potential for puddling and flooding, minimizing the possibility of water-driven disease/contraction of illness.

The several thousand residents of Al-Mawasi widely rely on agriculture. The agriculture plots in manure-enrichened sand, fed by shallow groundwater, were traditionally irrigated by digging shallow open pits (Arabic: thamila) that filled with water that was manually transferred to irrigate the adjacent plot fields. The term mawasi has been hypothesized to be associated with a similar Arabic meaning of “suck”, implying the “sucking” of shallow underground water by the plants’ roots or generally by the crops. The plots border the beach and are usually rectangular, averaging 1-2 dunams in size (0.25-0.5 hectare), and are often sub-divided between owners and crop types. The plots are partially bordered by berms or excavated dune slopes covered with live and dead vegetation for protection of the plots from wind.

Today, Mawasi is associated with mechanized construction of the plots and the pumping of water for agriculture. Crop types are variegated between leafy and marrow vegetables, melons and date palms, guavas, mangos and pomegranates. The Mawasi agroecosystem is recognized as one of the most fertile agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas in the Gaza Strip due to its relatively high agro-biodiversity and the great sensitivity of the high groundwater to pollution.

Mawasi appears to have rapidly developed in conjunction with the post-1967 Israeli development and implementation of drip agriculture that could harness the high groundwater more efficiently, exemplifying a modern upgrade of traditional and sustainable agriculture in sand. Since the Israeli disengagement of the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the consequent violent takeover of Hamas terrorists in 2007, little is known of the fate of this unique agricultural strip.

Despite the regionally relative humanitarian advantages of the Al-Mawasi for encampment of the displaced Gazans, a vast majority of them didn’t go there. Rather, they are concentrated in the outskirts of the cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah often adjacent to Hamas infrastructures and tunnel openings.

This over-concentrated situation places enormous pressure on the city infrastructure. Here urban water drainage, already neglected by Hamas for years, leads to dire conditions like puddling and infiltration of the tents with surface water. The reason for this is simply a result of the Hamas directive to intensify the humanitarian situation and, coupled with this, the human-shield aspect, to divert international pressure on Israel towards a ceasefire in order to keep the Hamas terror group in control of Gaza and its suffering people.

About the Author
Prof. Joel Roskin is a geologist and geographer in the Department of Geography and Environment at Bar-Ilan University.