Amid fuel crisis, Gaza’s swimmers find themselves covered in sewage

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Goalkeeper in a pick-up game in Gaza’s Sheikh Ejleen beach, Mohammed Abu Mahaadi, 27, feels sweaty.  He rushes to the sea, diving for seconds into wavy black-gray spots at the end of a foamy break. Dozens of dead jellyfish and sea crabs are in view. When he emerges, Abu Mahaadi’s body is covered in a sludge, sewage water pumped into Gaza’s sea, an effect of the current fuel crisis where there is no longer power to generate the Strip’s waste treatment plant.

Gaza’s electricity crisis began last April when the Palestinian Authority (PA) told Israel that it will no longer pay for the electricity Tel Aviv supplies, which was about half of the power running Gaza. The PA had been covering those bills in part because Israel does not deal directly with Hamas who governs Gaza. Once the payments stopped at the end of April, long blackouts spread across Gaza.

Palestinians enjoy their time of the beach of Gaza city, on July 5, 2017. An immediate consequence of the electricity cuts has been suffering for Gazans. A new U.N. report said Gaza gets electricity just four to six hours a day, and 29 million gallons of sewage is flooding into the Mediterranean Sea every day and threatening to overflow into the streets. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)
Mohammed Abu Mahaadi. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

That same month the PA deepened the crisis by increasing the price of fuel it sells to Gaza. Weeks later the Gulf diplomatic debacle eliminated a possible financial safety net from Qatar, a major financier of public works in Gaza.  The combination of setbacks triggered up to 20 hours of blackout a day.

On Tuesday the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Territory announced the outage left Gaza running on 90 megawatts per day, compared to a daily need rate of 450 megawatts. One of the first casualties of the power crisis was a World Bank funded sewage treatment facility in the northern Gaza Strip, a $73 million project ten years ago.

Yet as early as last summer the sewage treatment plant was already powered by diesel reserves. There was a short-lived attempt from Palestinian leaders to capitalize on an offer from the U.S. to finance Israeli electrical lines to the plant, but by 2016 it was clear Israel would not grant permits to the power source, the AP reported. Now the backup fuel has run out, and there is no alternative source of power. As a result, pumps that would otherwise bring waste water into the plant for cleaning are leaking into the ground, creating 13 main hot spots of raw sewage along Gaza’s 25 mile-long coast, according to a statement by the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority (EQA).

“More than 100,000 cubic meters [26 million gallons] of raw sewage or poorly treated effluent is now being discharged to the sea daily,” the UN announced in May. “More than 55 wastewater pumping stations located at heavily populated areas [are] now at increased risk of flooding, overflow and contamination, due to unpredictable electricity supply and shortage of services.”

Palestinian monitors have warned for years of a coming sea contamination crisis if the sewage plant does not begin operating at full capacity. In a 2015 study, the last thorough investigation in Gaza on sea quality looked at 160 water samples taken from various points across Gaza’s shores, and 97 of the samples were found were “considered contaminated and unsuitable for recreation,” according to a 2017 report from the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. The study conducted by the EQA determined that at that time, already 60% of Gaza’s beaches were unsafe for swimming. 

Ahmed Hilles, the director of Environmental Awareness at the Ministry of Environment Affairs told Mondoweiss that wastewater is loaded with disease-causing parasites. “These severe toxic materials are very harmful to Gaza’s beachgoers and bring a fear of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.”

Yet most Palestinians are not heeding the warnings coming from researchers about the dangers of the sewage.

Back at the seaside soccer game, Abu Mahaadi said he plans to keep swimming.

“Our families have been living in this area for 50 years, if we do not swim in the sea, we will not have a break from ruthless mosquito bites along the night,” he said, conceding more visible pollution has accumulated in recent weeks.

“Once the tide goes back at night, sediment with algae mixed with fecal matter can be seen on the beach,” Abu Mahaadi said.

Others beachgoers agreed they will continue to swim even though the water is heavily polluted.

Zahia Akila. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Zahia Akila, 52, from Shuja’iyya, a neighborhood in northern Gaza destroyed in the 2014 war, came with her grandchildren to the popular al-Bahar beach in Gaza City.

“The local authorities used to warn against swimming in the sea, but I will not go into a battle with these kids, Akila told Mondoweiss. “If I refuse to take them here, there is nothing we can do in Gaza but swim in the sea. Do we have a mall or a cinema?”

A city official told Mondoweiss he has given up on issuing public bans against swimming.

“We don’t have an obligation to prevent people from using their only form of recreation,” Maher Salem, director of the sanitation department in Gaza Municipality, said.

But less than ten miles to the north of the Gaza Strip in the city of Ashkelon and less than 2 miles from Gaza at Zikim beach, the Israeli ministry of health two weeks ago banned swimming in the sea due to pollutants rushing into the water originating from Gaza.

Israeli officials are now calling on government action to get power back up in Gaza, for the purpose of keeping Israeli beaches clean. Haaretz reported the mayor of Ashkelon, Tomer Glam, sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s NRG reported the deputy mayor of Ashkelon Yorm Schaffer, who heads environmental quality for the coastal city, said he regards the increased flow of sewage into the sea as a scheme by Hamas to strongarm Israel into providing electricity to Gaza.

“We are hostages. They are fighting the government, and I do not want to get into the point if this war is right or wrong, but we have to take into account our price as beach towns,” Schaffer told NRG.

“They [Hamas] are not stupid, they are looking for how to do damage to us that will force us to return the electricity to them. They could cut off the electricity at the expense of something else, but they decided to do something that would hurt us, that we would feel that what we are doing is not only harming them but also harming us,” he said. 

Back in Gaza on the beach, Palestinians had mixed reactions to Israel closing beaches due to pollutants from Gaza.

Nayfa Harb. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

“If the Israelis really closed their beaches, their authorities are to blame because the electricity and water were cut off by them,” Nayfa Harb, 53 said. “We do not have enough running water to fill the bathtub, and it also smells like the sea.”

“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The Israelis should taste this nasty water like we do,” Nayfa added.

Mohammed Abu Mahaadi, the soccer player, scoffed, ”That’s wonderful! Israeli beachgoers should enjoy this shit like us since we share the sand and the sea.”

“This endless hail of sewage pumped into the sea and flowing toward Israel’s shores is something that cannot be intercepted by Iron Dome [Israeli defensive missile interceptor],” Abu Mahaadi said. “They have to use wisdom to solve this one.”

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I hope I live long enough to see israel face justice that is overdue way too long.