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Gaza now has a toxic ‘biosphere of war’ that no one can escape

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Gaza has often been invaded for its water. Every army leaving or entering the Sinai desert, whether Babylonians, Alexander the Great, the Ottomans, or the British, has sought relief there. But today the water of Gaza highlights a toxic situation that is spiralling out of control.

A combination of repeated Israeli attacks and the sealing of its borders by Israel and Egypt, have left the territory unable to process its water or waste. Every drop of water swallowed in Gaza, like every toilet flushed or antibiotic imbibed, returns to the environment in a degraded state.

Palestinian workers drill water wells, in Gaza city, on June 01, 2014.

Palestinian workers drill water wells in Gaza city, June 1, 2014. Over pumping the coastal aquifer, Gaza’s main water source, has significantly lowered the groundwater level which has led to contamination of the aquifer’ by seawater seeping in, and saline groundwater rising from deeper in the reservoir. (Photo: Ezz al-Zanoun/APA Images)

When a hospital toilet is flushed, for instance, it seeps untreated through the sand into the aquifer. There it joins water laced with pesticides from farms, heavy metals from industry, and salt from the ocean. It is then pumped back up by municipal or private wells, joined with a small fraction of freshwater purchased from Israel, and cycled back into people’s taps. This results in widespread contamination and undrinkable drinking water, about 90% of which exceeds the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for salinity and chloride.

Incredibly, conditions are getting worse, thanks to the emergence of “superbugs”. These multi-drug resistant organisms have developed thanks to an over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors desperate to treat the victims of the seemingly endless assaults. The more injury there is, the more chance there is of re-injury. Less regular access to clean water means infections will spread faster, bugs will be stronger, more antibiotics will be prescribed – and the victims will be ever-more weakened.

The result is what has been termed a toxic ecology or “biosphere of war”, of which the noxious water cycle is just one part. A biosphere refers to the interaction of all living things with the natural resources that sustain them. The point is that sanctions, blockades and a permanent state of war affects everything that humans might require in order to thrive, as water becomes contaminated, air is polluted, soil loses its fertility and livestock succumb to diseases. People in Gaza who may have evaded bombs or sniper fire have no escape from the biosphere.

War surgeons, health anthropologists and water engineers – including ourselves – have observed this situation developing wherever protracted armed conflict or economic sanctions grind on, as with water systems in Basrah and health systems throughout Iraq or Syria. It’s now well past time to clean it up.

There is water – for some

It’s not as if there is no fresh water nearby to alleviate the situation in Gaza. Just a few hundred metres from the border are Israeli farms that use freshwater pumped from Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) to grow herbs destined for European supermarkets. As the lake is around 200km to the north and lies 200 metres below sea level, a massive amount of energy is used to pump all that water. The lake water is also fiercely contested by Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestinians in the West Bank, each of which is seeking their legal entitlement of the Jordan River basin.

Gaza City on one side of the border, Israeli farms on the other. (Image: Google Maps)

Gaza City on one side of the border, Israeli farms on the other. (Image: Google Maps)

Meanwhile, Israel desalinates so much seawater these days that its municipalities are turning it down. Excess desalinated water is being used to irrigate crops, and the country’s water authority is even planning to use it to refill Tiberias itself – a bizarre and irrational cycle, considering the lake water continues to be pumped the other direction into the desert. There is now so much manufactured water that some Israeli engineers can declare that “today, no one in Israel experiences water scarcity”.

But the same cannot be said for Palestinians, especially not those in Gaza. People there have resorted to various ingenious filters, boilers, or under-the-sink or neighbourhood-level desalination units to treat their water. But these sources are unregulated, often full of germs, and just another reason children are prescribed antibiotics – thus continuing the pattern of injury and re-injury. Doctors, nurses, and water maintenance crews meanwhile try to do the impossible with the minimal medical equipment at their disposal.

The implications for all those who invest in Gaza’s repeatedly destroyed water and health projects are clear. Providing more ambulances or water tankers – the “truck and chuck” strategy – might work when conflicts are at their most acute, but they are never more than a band aid. Yes, things will get better in the short term, but soon enough Gaza will be onto the next generation of antibiotics, and dealing with teflon-coated superbugs.

Donors must instead design programmes suited to the all-pervasive and incessant biosphere of war. This means training many more doctors and nurses, providing more medicines, and infrastructure support for health and water services. More importantly, donors should build-in political “cover” to protect their investments (if not the local children), perhaps by calling for those who destroy the infrastructure to foot the bill for repairs.

And there is an even bigger message for the rest of us. Our research shows that war is more than simply armies and geopolitics – it extends across entire ecosystems. If the dehumanising ideology behind the conflict was confronted, and if excess water was diverted to people rather than to lakes, then the easily avoidable repeated injuries suffered by people in Gaza would become a thing of the past. Palestinians would soon find their biosphere a whole lot healthier.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About Mark Zeitoun

Mark Zeitoun is Professor of Water Security at the University of East Anglia, and former humanitarian-aid engineer throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Other posts by .


About Ghassan Abu Sitta

Ghassan Abu Sitta is founder of the Conflict Medicine Program at the American University of Beirut, and has been a war surgeon throughout Europe and the Middle East.

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  1. Misterioso
    Misterioso on May 1, 2019, 8:51 am

    http://www.unz.com/pgiraldi/blame-palestinians-for-gaza/

    “Blame Palestinians for Gaza Israel is the perpetual victim”
    The unz review,

    By Philip Giraldi, April 30, 2019

    “If you have read a recent New York Times op-ed entitled ‘Care about Gaza? Blame Hamas’ written by none other than the White House ‘special representative for international negotiations’ Jason Greenblatt you would understand that the misery being experienced by Palestinians in Gaza is all their own fault. Greenblatt, who is Jewish of the Orthodox persuasion, just happens to be a strong supporter of Israel’s settlements, which he claims are ‘not an obstacle to peace.’ He is very upset because some naysayers are actually putting some of the blame for the human catastrophe in Gaza on Israel, which we Americans all know is our best friend in the whole world and our most loyal ally. If that were not so, the New York Times and those fine people in Congress and the White House would surely inform us otherwise. And anyway, what are a few lies and war crimes between friends?

    “Greenblatt, who knows nothing about foreign policy and diplomacy apart from advising Donald Trump on Israel while serving as the Trump Organization chief legal officer, is supposed to be working hard with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner negotiating ‘deal of the century’ peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Betting is that the arrangement on offer in June will consist of American acquiescence in Israel declaring sovereignty over nearly all of land that the Arabs still hold on the West Bank with the remaining local population being bribed heavily to either move to Jordan or stay in designated non-Jewish sectors and stop complaining.

    “Jason Greenblatt is a perfect example of the type of ‘dual’ loyalist who cannot appreciate that his overriding religious and ethnic allegiances are incompatible with genuine loyalty to the United States. Willingness to subordinate actual American interests to a those of a foreign nation means that he and others like him are contributing to the decline and fall of the country he was born in and which has made him wealthy. If he had any real integrity, when presented by Trump with the opportunity to benefit Israel at the expense of the United States he should have declined the offer knowing that he would inevitably be biased, making it impossible for him to fairly consider either American interests or those of the Palestinians.

    “Greenblatt knows that whatever lies he tells it will not matter in the least because no one will ever hold him accountable and it is all done for a great cause, which is Israel, to include anything that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants. And what could be better than to hold down a job that pays in the neighborhood of $200,000 a year plus a full benefits package for doing nothing but ‘creating facts on the ground’ for the country that one loves best?

    “The Greenblatt op-ed includes some really choice ‘analysis’ that does not correspond with the reality of what is going on in what remains of Palestine. He begins immediately with a heavy dose of Israeli propaganda, asserting that ‘Hamas has left Gaza in shambles,’ before providing a partially accurate but morally neutral assessment of the sorry state of the enclave: ‘Life there is difficult, sad and abnormal. Only buildings with generators actually maintain steady power. The lack of power affects everything from preserving fresh food to treating sewage. If a person in Gaza falls ill, he is likely to find trained medical professionals unable to help because of the lack of equipment and medicines. The people there — even the talented and educated — can’t find jobs. The store shelves are empty. The shoreline, which in many other places in the Mediterranean would be filled with beach resorts, is covered in the raw sewage and debris from successive wars. The cost of conflict is seen in all aspects of life in Gaza.’

    “The dismal picture of conditions in Gaza, largely true, does not admit to any Israeli role in the suffering, or, at least, Greenblatt is blind to it. Israel controls both the land border and the seafront. It manages the enclave as if it were an outdoor concentration camp and military free-fire zone for its 2 million Arab inhabitants. Lack of electricity is caused by Israeli bombing of power plants, which also make it impossible to treat sewage. Proliferating sewage appears to be a preferred weapon for Israelis as settlers on the West Bank are also fond of letting it flow onto Palestinians farms and villages.

    “Food in Gaza is limited only to what can be grown locally or to what the Israelis allow in. Likewise medicines are only available when Israel permits. Gazans cannot leave without Israeli permission and on the seafront, fisherman who are brave enough to go out are frequently shot dead by Israeli gunboats if they go too far.

    “Israel bombs hospitals, schools and places of worship indiscriminately, always claiming that they are being used by terrorists even when United Nations observers are on site and declare that the allegations are palpably untrue. And then there are isolated incidents , to include the deliberate murder by naval gunfire of four young boys innocently playing soccer on a beach and the killing by missiles of nine other children who were watching television. An American military attache stationed in Israel once observer soldiers on the Israel side engaging in target practice by shooting at women hanging out their laundry on the Gaza side of the fence and Israeli snipers have proudly worn t-shirts showing a graphic of a pregnant Arab woman in a gunsight with the text ‘two for one’ underneath.

    “Currently, protests by unarmed Gazans along the Israel-Gaza fence have resulted in 260 Palestinian deaths, mostly by Israeli sniper fire. Nearly 7,000 others have been shot and wounded. Those killed include 32 medical workers and 50 children. Twenty-one children have had their limbs amputated and many more have been permanently disabled.

    “Thousands more Palestinians have died from Israeli bombs, rockets and artillery shelling since 2009. In 2014 alone, more than 2,000 Gazans were killed and more than 10,000 were wounded, including 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left permanently disabled. More than 7,000 homes were destroyed. The grossly disproportionate carnage in Gaza initiated by Israel was so outrageous that even many Americans began to wake up to what their tax dollars were buying. After 2014’s death toll, support for Israel began to wane. Currently 51% of Americans view the Israeli government unfavorably in spite of relentless pro-Israel propaganda by the U.S. media.

    “Jason Greenblatt goes on to claim that ‘The Arabs in Israel generally live normal lives and, in many cases, thrive. In fact, Arab citizens of Israel live freely compared with Arabs in many other countries in the region… Why are others moving forward while Gaza sinks further into despair and disrepair? Because Hamas, the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, has made choices… Hamas is to blame for Gaza’s situation.’

    “Greenblatt is wrong about the claimed happy lot of Palestinians living in Israel. Israel has recently declared itself a Jewish State. In practice, there are more than fifty laws and regulations that make Christians and Muslims second class citizens. Churches and Mosques are regularly vandalized and Christian and Muslim holy sites are regularly destroyed by the authorities while a prominent Rabbi has recently declared in the wake of Sri Lanka that proposals that all churches should be destroyed inside Israel should be considered but are ‘complicated.’ Arab Israelis cannot get building permits, their schools are underfunded and they are discriminated against or ignored in nearly all their interactions with the government. Local communities can declare themselves Arab-free zones and they can refuse to sell houses to Palestinians.

    “The fundamental problem with Greenblatt and others like him is that they have a very selective moral compass and choose not to recognize apartheid even when it is right in front of them. Israel is a fundamentally racist occupying power with a colonial-settler mindset, which sees the Arabs as ignorant savages that have to be ideally removed, but if not, restrained by forced or even killed if necessary. And, like all purveyors of war crimes, the Israelis and their diaspora cheerleaders blame the victims for their plight. Greenblatt will have an excuse for any atrocity committed by Israel. The Israel Defense Force is shooting Palestinians individually now but if it starts doing them in groups he would no doubt come up with a good rationalization justifying the practice.

    “Israel is a Middle Eastern superpower, heavily armed and unconcerned over the consequences for starting wars and killing Arabs. To argue as Greenblatt does that there is some kind of ‘fighting’ going on with Hamas ‘instigating’ wars against Israel is ludicrous given the disparity in power between the two sides. It is largely retaliatory Hamas homemade bottle rockets, which kill or injure very few, against fighter jets, snipers and artillery barrages that kill thousands. And the really sad part for Americans is that the United States is deeply complicit in what goes on, sending ‘special representatives’ like Greenblatt into the region on the taxpayer’s dime to argue Israel’s case.”

    Philip M. Giraldi, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest,

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