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In Gaza, home to 1.8 million people in an area about the size of Detroit, the only local source of groundwater will be completely contaminated by the end of this year.

The sludgy, orange-brown water running out of taps in Flint, Michigan has rightly prompted outrage among many people in the U.S. This crisis exposed thousands of children to dangerous levels of lead and was entirely avoidable – if the right people had acted at the right time.

On the other side of the globe, another human-created catastrophe is brewing. In Gaza, home to 1.8 million people in an area about the size of Detroit, the only local source of groundwater will be completely contaminated by the end of this year.

What’s behind the crisis?

This crisis is brought on by the nine-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza (see map, pg. 5). Israel imposed the blockade after the Palestinian armed group Hamas seized power by force. Israel considers Gaza a hostile entity and severely restricts the passage of people and goods in and out of Gaza. This includes a limit on construction materials allowed into the territory, since Hamas could use them for military purposes. The blockade has led to an ongoing, and worsening, humanitarian crisis.

Israeli bombings over the past decade have destroyed much of Gaza’s water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure. Fully repairing the infrastructure is virtually impossible due to restrictions on building materials. In November 2015, Dr. Mahmoud Daher, Head of the World Health Organization’s Gaza sub-office, warned that “almost all of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.” With a 43 percent unemployment rate — the world‘s highest — many Palestinians in Gaza cannot afford to purchase water. Yet their options are to spend that money or expose themselves to serious health consequences.

Why should Israel act?

Israel‘s stated reason for the blockade is to protect its citizens. In the past 15 years, rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza have killed 44 Israeli soldiers and civilians. The blockade, however, has provided a rallying cry for violent Palestinian extremist groups, and an ever-worsening water crisis will only give them more traction.

On a practical level, a water-driven public health crisis will affect Israelis as well as the Palestinians in Gaza. Gaza sewage has already ended up on Israel’s beaches and could ultimately contaminate Israel’s water supply as well. If a water-born pandemic such as polio or cholera were to break out in Gaza, it would quickly spread to Israel. Groups such as EcoPeace, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian environmentalists, are also pushing for action out of wider concerns for the environment and health of all people living in the region.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross has said, by continuing the blockade, “the whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility.” A collective punishment approach only perpetuates the cycle of violence that has been at work in the region for generations. Some Israeli military leaders are beginning to see the futility of this strategy. Amos Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Military Intelligence, recommended that “Israel must engage in non-military activities to prevent a confrontation.” Yadlin noted that “this must be done through Israeli contributions toward a better economic and political reality in the Gaza Strip, which will make it more difficult for Hamas to violate a ceasefire.”

With the Israeli military occupation of Gaza entering its fiftieth year, the international community has the opportunity to help the people of Gaza address their looming water crisis. This issue could provide momentum that opens the door to a broader easing of the blockade on Gaza, and a broader conversation about how the U.S. can play a constructive role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What should the U.S. do?

The U.S. is the largest funder of Israel’s military occupation, paying for one-fifth of the Israeli defense budget. This investment gives the U.S. leverage to influence Israel’s actions.

We urge the U.S. to take these three steps:

  1. Press Israel to double its sale of water to Gaza. Without clean groundwater, Gaza‘s drinking water must come through the blockade, from Israel or Egypt. Israel increased water sales in March 2015, but the amount is still not sufficient to meet the need of Gaza’s growing population, half of whom are children. As a bandaid for the crisis, the U.S. should support an increase in Israel’s water sales to Gaza.
  2. Press Israel to increase its electricity sales to Gaza. Lack of sewage treatment contributes to groundwater contamination and compounds water shortages in Gaza. The World Bank built a large-scale sewage plant in Gaza, but it needs more power to operate than Gaza has available under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
  3. Press Israel to allow Gaza to rebuild its water and sewage infrastructure. Rebuilding this war-ravaged infrastructure is essential for Gaza address its own basic needs for water, sanitation, and any prospect for a functioning economy.

Israel doesn’t have full control over Gaza’s water crisis. In our conversations with the White House, State Department, and USAID, officials have talked about engaging with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to address this crisis. The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization and do not have regular diplomatic relations with the group. Peace negotiations will eventually require engaging Hamas, but Gaza can‘t wait for that breakthrough to have access to clean water.

FCNL advocates for the U.S. to urge Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza. The U.N. warns that unless “herculean efforts” are taken, Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020, in large part because of the water crisis. The landscape in Gaza is already defined by massive piles of rubble from demolished homes and factories, the legacy of years of bombings, with no materials to rebuild.

The lack of opportunity is as damaging to people in Gaza as the lack of construction materials. “The worst part about the occupation is isolation,” Bassam Nasser, the Gaza field manager for Catholic Relief Services, told FCNL’s Kate Gould last fall when she visited Gaza. It is difficult to visit Gaza, and almost impossible for people who live there to leave. Violence and extremism thrive in such environments, where poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness are rampant.

To secure a just and lasting peace that upholds the shared needs and security of all parties, the first step is to show the possibility for progress toward that goal. Addressing the water crisis is a way to open to door to a change in relations between Israel and Gaza. If the U.S. were to press Israel to relieve this immediate problem, it could lay the groundwork for a brighter future for Palestinians and Israelis. Securing clean water for Gaza is an essential step on that path.