David Lehrer

Don’t Read This Blog

If you do not want to read about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza while Israelis are still recovering from the shock of the pogrom of October 7th, in mourning over our dead, in agony over our loved ones who are missing or those being held hostage by terrorists in Gaza, and worried about our sons and daughters on the front line, don’t read any further. I completely understand. It is incredibly difficult to make room in your heart for the pain of others when your own heart is filled with pain and outrage.  We are, after all, only human.  So, if my reporting on what is happening to my friends and colleagues in Gaza is not where your head is right now, don’t read the rest of this blog.

The Track II Environmental Forum of the Arava Institute, a partnership between a Palestinian NGO and the Arava Institute was launched in 2016 because we believe that the environment cannot wait for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and because we believe that working together to solve environmental issues builds trust and cross-border relationships. The goal of the forum is to advance cross-border environmental cooperation and agreements between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  Over the past 5 years, the Track II Environmental Forum has led cross-border water, energy, and environmental initiatives in both the West Bank and Gaza. In Gaza the Forum has introduced neighborhood wastewater treatment technology and placed 7 atmospheric water generators, an Israeli technology created by Watergen, turning humidity in the atmosphere into drinking water, in 7 medical facilities on the West Bank.

The first Watergen unit was placed in a small rural community on the border with Israel, Abasan Al Kabira. Abasan is in the southeast of the Gaza Strip opposite Kibbutz Nirim.  The connection to Abasan was made by our Palestinian partner Mariam (name changed for her safety), who comes from the village, but has been living in Ramallah for the past 15 years. Mariam has a very large family in Abasan and the surrounding Khan Younis Governate.  Mariam has promoted renewable energy and cross-border cooperation for many years.  She is associated with a political party which is part of the PLO.  Through Mariam, the Track II Environmental Forum was able to help develop, on a very small scale, water, and energy infrastructure in Abasan, which has no centralized sewage and whose residents are mostly farmers.  The Track II Environmental Forum has had ongoing communication with the municipality to develop additional humanitarian and environmental programs. Mariam had gone back to Gaza to visit her 90-year-old parents just before the October 7th massacre in Israel. She has been in Gaza ever since.

Early in the war, a bomb fell on a building which housed many of Mariam’s family.  It killed over 40 of her family members including many children.  Since then, the bombing around Mariam’s house has been non-stop. The smoke from the flames has polluted the air, making it difficult to breathe.  Her family has no bomb shelter to run to and her parents are too old to move to an UNRWA site which might be safe from bombs.  So, she and her family stay in their family home and pray that a bomb does not fall on them.

I am in touch with another friend and colleague in Gaza, Mohammed (name changed for his safety) who was an official in the Palestinian Authority in Gaza dealing with infrastructure. We have known each other for years. Mohammed has been to the Arava Institute, to our Track II Conference and has also been a guest speaker at some of our events in Tel Aviv.  Mohammed lives in Gaza City.  Soon after the war began, I reached out to him to see if he was safe. I did not hear from him for a day or two and was very worried but last week he contacted me on Whatsapp and said “What can I say, I understand the Israeli position after the terrible events [on October 7th] which is unacceptable by most Palestinians, but the Israeli reaction should not result in thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths. It should be clear that we are not against Israelis, but we are looking for the minimum humanitarian treatment. I have many Israeli friends, maybe even more than Palestinian friends and we respect each other with complete trust.  It should be clear to the world, that we normal people are looking to live in peace with Israelis.”

About a week ago, the IDF announced to the Palestinians living in Gaza City that they should move south of Wadi Gaza which is an extension of the Besor Riverbed cutting across the Gaza strip from Israel to the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Gaza City.  So far, it has been reported that 700,000 civilians have moved south, however, Mariam reports that bombing is continuing in the south in Abasan Al-Kabira, Khan Younis, Al-Zawadia, Al-Qarara and Rafah, all villages south of Wadi Gaza.

Mohammed continues to write on Whatsapp, “I repeat, I understand well the Israeli operation but transferring the people of Gaza City to south Gaza is a complicated solution.  Imagine 2 million inhabitants of Gaza in one small area without adequate facilities, no food or water. If the Israelis plan on a long-term operation, what will happen to the civilian population living in these conditions for weeks or months? Until now, the Palestinians in the south of Gaza are still being attacked. Some people who went south are returning north to their homes. There is a shortage of food and water in the UNRWA camps.”

It is my understanding that humanitarian aid, food, water, and medical supplies, has begun crossing from Egypt into southern Gaza. Who knows if this will be adequate for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.   It is also my understanding that the IDF is still bombing southern Gaza despite its declaration that Palestinians should move south.

Two days ago, Mariam reported to me about three farmers from Abasan who went from their home to feed their chickens. All three were killed by a bomb.

I reached out to Mohammed again to ask where he was. He replied, “I am at home, I prefer to die in my home. No place in Gaza, even southern Gaza is safe.”

I understand that Israel’s goal is to remove the threat of Hamas terrorists to Israeli civilians but to do so in a way which creates a massive humanitarian crisis and causes the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians is immoral and does not serve anyone’s interest including Israel’s.  Once the IDF ground invasion starts, which seems inevitable, civilian deaths will rise. It will be very difficult for Israeli soldiers to keep themselves safe, while protecting innocent civilians. It is of utmost importance that the remaining civilians in northern Gaza move south.  The two things which are necessary to encourage Palestinian civilians to get out of the way of the coming invasion are a safety zone in the south of Gaza free of bombings and facilities, infrastructure, and supplies to adequately support 2 million displaced civilians for the coming weeks and months of the war.  So far, Israel, the United States, Egypt, and the international community have failed to create these conditions which could save thousands of lives and avoid a humanitarian disaster.

About the Author
Dr. Lehrer holds a PhD from the Geography and Environmental Development Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a joint Masters Degree in Management Science from Boston University and Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Lehrer was the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies from 2001 until August 2021 and has now become Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy. Dr. Lehrer has been a member of Kibbutz Ketura since 1981.
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