Is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza inevitable?

The Gaza Strip is facing a humanitarian crisis in the next three years, driven by a collapse of its energy, water, and sewage systems. This crisis could, if not stopped, lead to a deterioration of the security situation in the region.

The UN is forecasting a crisis for Gaza by 2020 for several reasons. By that year, Gaza’s aquifers (underground natural water supplies) will be depleted and 2.1 million Gazans will be left without adequate running water.

Historically, Gaza’s aquifers were filled with abundant amounts of water. Gazans could dig half a meter to reach water reserves. But as time passed under Israeli, Palestinian Authority (PA), and now Hamas rule, there were few restrictions placed on the number of wells dug in Gaza. Natural rainfall has failed to replace the water being sucked out of the aquifers by all the new wells. Once the aquifers collapse, it will take between 70 to 100 years to recover.

While it is possible to construct a desalination plant for Gaza to replace the water from the aquifers, this requires abundant electricity, which Gaza currently lacks. Even if a plant could be built and supplied with electricity, there is no guarantee that any new electricity that Hamas receives will not be used to build more weapons to terrorize and attack Israel.

In the meantime, as Gaza’s population and water usage grows, so does the sewage output, which is penetrating the aquifers and polluting them. An overflow of Gazan sewage also threatens the Israeli coastline, since the Mediterranean Sea flows northward in a cyclical movement. There have been several projects aimed at constructing new sewage treatment plants, including one initiative by the World Bank, which led to the construction of a 100-million dollar facility in northern Gaza. Today, the plant sits idle, since there is insufficient electricity to power it.

The electricity supply problem has been exacerbated by the political struggle between Hamas and the PA. PA President Abbas has decreased the supply of electricity to Gaza by 15% to force Hamas to accept a return of PA rule to the Strip. Where people once received eight to ten hours of electricity per day, they now get just two to three hours.

Abbas’s message is clear — he is fed up footing the bill for Hamas and gaining nothing in return.

He is demanding that the PA be allowed to return to Gaza. This could be accomplished if Hamas enters a unity government with the PA to create a single authority. Under such an arrangement, Hamas’s armed wing would swear allegiance to Abbas and Abbas would agree to pay salaries to Hamas’s 40,000-strong public sector work force in Gaza. In this way, Abbas hopes to take advantage of Hamas economic weakness resulting from the collapse of its tax revenues.

In the past, under Presidents Mubarak and Morsi, Egypt turned a blind eye to the network of tunnels that connected Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. This formed the basis for a tunnel economy which imported an estimated 300 million dollars a year in smuggled goods. Hamas taxed these imports, and depended on them for significant revenue. These tunnels gave Hamas the confidence to break away from Abbas and the PA. Now, however, under President Sisi, the tunnels and the tunnel economy have mostly been destroyed. Hamas is strapped for cash, staring financial collapse in the face.

Today, Hamas is almost fully reliant on taxes from goods that enter the Strip via the Kerem Shalom Crossing with Israel — a border crossing enabled by PA cooperation with Israel. Without PA cooperation, Hamas would lose this revenue source as well. The PA knows this, and is turning the screws even tighter. It knows that it cannot return to Gaza by riding on Israeli tanks — a situation that would tarnish Abbas’s legacy. But it can return through an agreement with Hamas to rejoin the Palestinian national government.

Israel, for its part, has no interest in dealing with Gaza, and is even considering steps like creating a sea port for the hostile enclave, to provide it with independence. But any such step, no matter how well-intentioned, will be perceived by Hamas as a reward and encouragement for terrorism — for the rockets, tunnels, and frequent violence that Hamas has leveled against Israel. This is the catch 22 that handicaps all steps that might alleviate the humanitarian time bomb in Gaza.

Nearly every material used in Gaza’s reconstruction can be used to build weapons as well. If Israel were to increase the power supply to Gaza, Hamas could be expected to use that same electricity to activate its military industry. The situation reaches levels of absurdity that are difficult to fathom. Hamas produces rockets using Israeli electricity, rockets that could be fired at Ashkelon’s power plant, which is supplying the Gazan power plant.

It would take at least four years to build a desalination plant, and it would take three to four years to construct natural gas pipelines that could supply Gaza’s power plant. Building a second power plant would also take three to four years. That’s too long to solve the problems. As a result, a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is at our doorstep.

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited by Garrett Fienberg

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Colonel Grisha Yakubovich (Res.), is the former Head of the Civilian Department in the IDF's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit. In that capacity, he led and facilitated strategic dialogue with the international community, Israeli government and the PA on matters of economics, infrastructure and foreign affairs. He is a renowned authority on Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and brings an unparalleled insider perspective on matters related to those areas. He is policy adviser to Our Soldiers Speak.
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