Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Water Justice for Gaza's newsletter. This edition is a compendium of insightful contributions from fellow researchers and experts deeply invested in the water challenges faced in Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a special focus on Gaza.
Our newsletter opens with a heartfelt letter to Dr. Reem Abu-Shomar, a respected colleague currently in Gaza. Dr. Reem's two decades of dedication to health, environment, and water issues in Occupied Palestinian Territories have been a beacon of inspiration and knowledge for us all.
This issue is particularly significant as it is published on the same day of CoP28 Water Day which aligns with the International Human Rights Day, underlining our commitment to addressing the critical water concerns in the region. Through this platform, we aim to shed light on the pressing water issues in Gaza and engage in meaningful dialogue to seek sustainable solutions. We hope that these articles will not only inform but also inspire collective action towards water justice in Palestine.
*Water Justice for Gaza (WJG) is a dedicated collective of researchers and activists, deeply involved in scrutinizing the ecological, economic, political, social, and legal dimensions of water exploitation and policy, both within Gaza and across the Palestinian occupied lands. WJG is vigorously mobilized, driven by an acute sense of urgency to cast a global spotlight on the pressing issues of natural resource exploitation and the quest for water and climate justice in Palestine. The mandate of WJG is to boldly confront the egregious realities of water aparthedi, weaponisation and the intentional, strategic destruction of Palestinian water systems in Gaza and beyond.
Letter to Reem
Reem, this is for you.
On November 14th this year, Dr Reem Abu-Shomar wrote an article from her phone: “Here, in the midst of displacement,” she wrote, “I find myself, ironically, working for the Palestinian Water Authority, orchestrating projects to secure water for Gaza, unable now to secure safe water for my family. My days are now a paradox. People like me, coordinating with national and international agencies to provide aid to those people most affected by the wars, have ourselves become the vulnerable, the displaced. The electricity blackout, which has persisted for more than a month, forces us into a relentless struggle to keep our phones — lifelines connecting us to scattered relatives and fragments of normalcy —charged via intermittent unsustainable power supplies, so I can get this story out to you.”
Reem is our colleague; she is a public health and environmental expert who has worked to secure safe water in Palestine for over 20 years.
Reem is also our inspiration. This September, she defended her PhD in a joint program at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) and Al Azhar University Gaza, which were bombed to rubble by Israeli forces less than a month later. For her doctorate, Reem conducted a ground-breaking study on anti-microbial resistance in hospitals’ water and wastewater, drawing worldwide attention to the issue. She managed this while raising two children, through all the restrictions and scares of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Israeli bombing campaign in May 2021.
We are launching this campaign to document and call out the horrific atrocities committed against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The campaign brings together researchers and practitioners from several fields to write on the long history of water apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a tool of Israel's decades-long occupation and ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people.
At the beginning of this year’s unprecedented bombardment of Gaza, we found ourselves in a state of despair. However, Reem’s ability to articulate the dire water situation in Gaza while she faced constant bombardment and mourned the death of her loved ones inspired us to organize. We created this space to highlight statements from Palestinian researchers and researchers who have worked in Palestine, and who are on the front line in the ongoing fight against water and resource apartheid.
We also want to use this space to mourn our colleagues, Shady Nahed El-Bata, Director of the Water Authority in the South Gaza Strip; Sufian Tayeh, Chairman of the Islamic University in Gaza; Mohamed Shubair, former president of IUG; and all those who we have lost and will continue to lose as the violence against Gaza continues. Today, we stand in solidarity with those battling death in search of water — the most basic human right.
*Water Justice for Gaza (WJG)
Deir Al Balah
On 6 December, the Deir al Balah UNICEF Desalination Plant in central Gaza ceased functioning after days of aerial bombardment. Funded largely by the European Union (EU), it had opened with humanitarian fanfare in January 2017 but was soon impeded by Israeli restrictions on ‘dual use’ materials and fuel. It was supposed to produce 20,000 cubic meters a day, serving 75,000 people with safe drinking water — a small but important step in a territory where, even before the current violence, 96 percent of water was unfit for human consumption. But the EU did nothing, nothing to break the Israeli blockade and the humanitarian carnage it caused.
The EU remains Israel’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 28.8% of its trade in goods in 2022. 31.9% of Israel’s imports came from the EU, and 25.6% of Israel’s exports went to the EU. Article 2 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement (2000) commits both parties to ‘respect for human rights and democratic principles’. A paper-thin commitment to international law, for nothing should get in the way of making money.
In October 2023, Deir al Balah swelled in size as displaced Gazans crammed into schools and hospitals for shelter. Local doctors reported an environmental disaster and a massive health crisis as water and sanitation systems collapsed. And children playing on the beach were bombed by Israeli planes. Fragments of US-made JDAM bombs were found in the rubble of two houses in Deir al Balah destroyed by Israeli air strikes – the homes of the al-Najjar and Abu Mu’eileq families: 19 children, 14 women and ten men, all dead. God bless America.
*Michael Mason, Professor of Environmental Geography in the Department of Geography at LSE University of London
Weaponizing Water in Gaza: A Desperate Fight for Survival Amidst Genocide
It has been two months since Israel brazenly announced its intention to violate International Humanitarian Law by cutting off all food, water, and electricity to Palestinians in already besieged Gaza, while simultaneously subjecting them to constant and indiscriminate bombings and ground attacks. From the second week of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza, my cousins in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip were concerned about water:
“There is effectively no electricity or water in the Gaza Strip,” wrote Mohammed, a mathematics professor and young father of one, on October 17th. “We’re lucky to live next to an agricultural area so we can at least access [untreated] well water, but 90% of the population don’t even have this option. Displaced people sheltering in UNRWA schools come to us sometimes asking for just one liter of agricultural water – they are desperate. Many people are drinking unsafe water.”
Weeks later, the effects of being forced to drink unclean water began to show:
“All of my children have suffered from diarrhea for days,” Wesam, a physician and mother of three children under the age of six, told me on November 11th.
Mohammed wrote on December 3rd that his two-year-old son is sick with gastrointestinal issues. He cannot find basic medications, like paracetamol, to relieve his symptoms. “All the pharmacies have run out because so many children are infected. According to our doctors, contaminated water is the main cause of illness now.”
“Non-potable water only comes one day a week, and it doesn’t reach many homes,” he writes. “Many people use sea water [for washing], which is already very polluted. Without fuel for the pumps, sewage has begun to mix with water in the aquifers, posing an even greater danger.”
After more than two months of heightened siege and Israeli bombardment, which has also damaged vital water and sanitation infrastructure, most governments refuse to even condemn Israel’s actions, let alone take meaningful action themselves to end the attacks and siege on Gaza, and alleviate the staggering humanitarian crisis they have caused.
Like so many Palestinians my cousins are highly educated, critical thinkers. They have not been surprised by the lack of action from the international community. On the contrary, they have always understood that institutions promoting human rights and international humanitarian law were created and are maintained to serve the interests of a world that Palestine, along with every other colonized, oppressed, and exploited nation, is not considered an equal part of.
This is a reality many researchers, activists, and human rights advocates have only come to grips with in the past two months, as we watch these institutions so staggeringly and completely fail in their mandates to protect life and ensure justice. Now, as Palestinians in Gaza struggle to find drinkable water and children fall ill with no access to basic and vital medications, our collective understanding of the institutions we have studied, defended, and promoted is being reshaped. By declining to take significant action to halt the crimes being committed against Palestinians, governments render international law illegitimate, humanitarian principles ineffective, and themselves unworthy of respect for failing to uphold the principles they proclaim to stand for.
I write this in memory of my cousin Abeer, her husband Hani, and their three-year-old son Hassan, who were killed in their home by an Israeli airstrike on October 19th. They are survived by their three children, Ahmed (11), Ali (9), and Mariam (6), who were also injured in the airstrike.
*Heather Elaydi, Palestinian-Canadian researcher and human rights advocate working on policy and politics around food, land, and water, primarily in contexts of conflict and crisis in West Asia and North Africa.
Navigating the Waters of Dispossession: Human Rights Violations Under Occupation
The 1995 Oslo II Accord was meant to be a ‘peace process’, but one of its most enduring features is actually a source of conflict. The Palestinian-Israeli Joint Water Committee that Oslo established had jurisdiction over the West Bank only, not over Israel. This means that Israeli approval of water projects for Palestinian villages is often conditioned – to this day – on Palestinian approval of water projects for Israeli settlements. Water lubricates colonisation, and the water conflict has been increasing in intensity for decades.
With the ongoing attack on Gaza, Israel has elevated its use of water from a political to a military tool. Cutting supplies of electricity means that most water pumps and water and sewage treatment plants cannot function. This means that raw sewage and anti-microbial resistance seep into the groundwater aquifer, which is now further laced with the heavy metals of over 10,000 missiles. The results are entirely predictable: those who don’t die immediately from the shrapnel will either perish weeks later when the wounds cannot be treated, months later when cholera or dysentery spread, or years later from accumulations of toxins.
This is a “crime against humanity” according to the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. The Rules of War also call for the protection of objects ‘indispensable for the survival of the civilian population’ (ICRC’s study on Customary IHL, Rule 54), like water treatment plants. Pumping seawater to flood out Hamas’ tunnels under Gaza would be a violation of the PERAC principles on protecting the natural environment and would salinate the aquifer so badly that treating the sweet water would be cost-prohibitive, which could be considered destruction of the conditions of life of everyone in Gaza.
Especially when most of these norms are ignored and most states are silent, the solidarity that Water Justice for Gaza is calling for is appreciated. Indeed, it is the best way towards peace.
*Mark Zeitoun, Professor and water diplomacy expert
Thirsting for Justice: The Israeli Occupation's Stranglehold on Palestinian Water Rights
The Occupied Palestinian Territory is facing a protracted water crisis after decades of Israeli military occupation. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights obligates Israel, as an occupying power, to ensure the Palestinians’ human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, including water services, as indicated in the general comment No.15 (2002). The UN has repeatedly emphasised this obligation, including after the Oslo Accords, a pair of interim agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed in 1993 and 1995, and after Israel's disengagement plan in 2005.
Still, Israel denies its obligation and continues to violate the Palestinians' human rights to water and sanitation. Through military orders, Israel has made itself the sole controller of all aspects of water management in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 1967. Consequently, it deprives the Palestinians of significant economic potential and severely restricts their water development.
The Occupied Palestinian Territory’s total freshwater production was 142 million cubic meters (mcm) in 2020. According to various estimates, the territory could produce roughly 668 million cubic meters (mcm) per year if it had access to an equitable share of water from regional resources alone. Article 40.2 of Oslo 2 in 1995 left the issue of dividing joint Palestinian-Israeli water resources to the permanent status negotiations, which should have been concluded by 1999. However, there is still no final agreement in place. Given this and Palestinian population growth, total well and spring production and the Palestinian share of water resources are considerably less today than before the Oslo Accords.
Israeli legislation and interventions deprive all Palestinians of their right to an equitable and reasonable share of available water resources. Because of Israeli policies, more than 60 per cent of those in Palestine are prevented from exercising their fundamental human rights to access safe drinking water and sanitation services.
*Zayneb alShalalfeh, Palestinian Women Water Practitioners Network
[To send us a statement for our next issue, email us at email@example.com.]