The latest round of violence should drive home to the Biden administration and the international community the folly of trying to simply manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a roadmap to durable peace. In seeking new pathways to a genuine resolution, policymakers would do well to take seriously the truism that the environment knows no borders. Humans and all living things are dependent on one another, and that natural interdependence can be a powerful basis to help forgge the needed roadmap.
Despite politicians’ claims, Israelis and Palestinians can never truly disengage from one another. We live in a single, shared environment. The many and varied ecological borders between Israel and Gaza are defined by natural phenomena, not politics. Water basins and marine coastal currents pay no heed to the political lines drawn on maps. These artificial divisions slicing through our natural borders pose obstacles to sustainably managing our natural ecosystems.
Under peaceful conditions, we can overcome the negative impact of dividing natural ecosystems through cross-border cooperation and coordination. But in conflict zones with high levels of distrust, such as between Israelis and Palestinians, coordination often has to be managed via third parties such as the UN and civil society organizations. During warfare like the kind we just experienced, third-party coordination usually grinds to a halt as one or the other party believes the coordination serves the interests of the other side. Such was the case recently when it came to supplying fuel for the only power station in Gaza, which provides electricity to two million people. A week into the fighting, the station’s output dwindled to nearly zero.
The amount of electricity available became so inadequate that it had to be intermittently supplied, rotating between neighborhoods. The electricity supply for private homes was down from an average of 16 hours a day before this latest round of violence, to just four hours a day. Without adequate electricity, required for such critical needs as pumping groundwater into homes, the average household in Gaza receives tap water for just 2 to 3 hours every few days.
Gaza sewage on Israeli beaches
Due to the dire state of the coastal aquifer (groundwater) underlying the Gaza Strip, the water supplied into homes can be used only for cleaning and bathing. For drinking and cooking purposes, desalinated water needs to be purchased. However, electricity is needed to power these small desalination plants too and the lack of fuel has led to desalination plants closing operations in Gaza that serve 250,000 people.
Without adequate electricity, the sewage generated by two million Palestinians in Gaza cannot be treated. In recent years, two modern sewage treatment plants were built in Gaza with several others still to be completed. Without electricity, sewage is flowing into the streets of residential neighborhoods. From previous rounds of violence and associated electricity cuts, we know that more than 110,000 cubic meters of raw sewage get dumped into the Mediterranean Sea from Gaza every day. It should come as no surprise that dirty water is responsible for some 30% of the disease in children in Gaza.
Because the environment knows no borders, the health risks associated with disease, exacerbated by inadequate water supply and the failure to treat sewage, do not stop at the fences with Israel. The sewage percolates into the groundwater contaminating wells on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side of the same coastal aquifer. The sewage that flows onto Gaza beaches is carried by the sea currents mostly in a northerly direction, polluting first the sea opposite Gaza and then carried by currents on to Israeli beaches.
EcoPeace Middle East revealed in earlier rounds of Israel-Hamas wars that the raw sewage from Gaza was responsible for the intermittent closure of Israel’s desalination plant at Ashkelon seven kilometers north of Gaza. Seventy percent of drinking water in Israel is today supplied by five large desalination plants built along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The closure because of Gaza sewage of the Ashkelon desalination plant, which alone manufactures 15% of Israeli domestic water, drives home the message of how interconnected and interdependent we are precisely because the environment knows no borders.
A solvable problem
But could the water and environment issue we share offer the basis for a roadmap to help improve the reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians towards a two-state solution? Compared to the other Israeli-Palestinian conflict “final status issues” – Jerusalem, refugees, borders/settlements, and security – water is solvable today, due in great part to Israel’s leadership in water technologies such as desalination.
For the last 25 years, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have negotiated based on having to agree to all final status issues as a single package. At the time of the Oslo Accords, all five final status issues, including water, were seen as difficult, where each side would compromise as part of a package deal. The failure to agree on all final status issues simultaneously has meant that there has been no advance on any of the final status issues.
Changing this policy paradigm to prioritize solvable issues like water could help revive peace efforts. This approach does not ignore the deep connection that water allocation has with other final status issues, such as borders, refugees and settlements. Both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators link the water issue to sovereignty and borders and the water quantity needs of refugees and settlements. The fungible nature of water as a resource, however, means that water quantities can be agreed upon in a manner that takes these complexities into account.
Moving forward on water issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would improve the conditions on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank, resulting in more water in every Palestinian home, while maintaining Israeli water supply through increased desalination. Advancing on water issues with the Palestinian Authority can demonstrate to the Palestinian and Israeli public that there is a partner for peace and help rebuild trust between the parties.
No less important, resolving a final status issue like water would empower the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and weaken Hamas. It would highlight the simple truth that the environment knows no borders and help expose the failed policies employed to date in Gaza by both Israel and Hamas. Resolving water issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will improve the situation on the ground and helps build the trust needed for future peace.