Gaza: Egypt Poisons the Water, Israel Does the Massacres

It seems as though almost the whole world is determined to turn its back on the Palestinians and behave as though the piecemeal, slow-motion destruction of Palestine is not just inevitable, but in fact of no importance. This is particularly obvious in Gaza. In complete violation of the U.N. Charter, the world's great powers look on complacently while both Egypt and Israel enforce the illegal blockade against Gaza's people. Under President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Egypt has used its very real fight against terrorism to justify its role in the blockade. But Egypt is now going far beyond merely sealing its frontier with Gaza by engaging in terrorism of its own – environmental terrorism – to attack the civilian population of Gaza by destroying the aquifer that provides much of Gaza with fresh water for drinking and irrigation.

Palestinians inspect the damage after Egyptian forces flooded smuggling tunnels dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip Sep.18, 2015.

After Israel's military campaigns against the civilian population of Gaza it seemed impossible to imagine anything worse than that genocidal armed aggression. But President Al-Sisi's government has taken up attacking Gaza's water supply where even the Israeli government has refrained from acting. Egypt is implementing a plan to flood with contaminated seawater the few remaining tunnels that have been Gaza's economic lifeline for a decade or more. By systematically flooding the frontier area in question, the Egyptian government will poison Gaza's water supply by irreversibly salinating it. That same aquifer network provides water to Egypt's own territory and population in the affected area, many of whom have been displaced to make way for the Egyptian government's plan to flood Gaza's tunnels.

This plan to destroy Gaza's tunnels is far from new. Nizar al Wahidi, Director for Extension Projects of Palestine's Ministry of Agriculture, told our contact, New Zealand writer Huda Julie Webb Pullman, currently in Gaza, that the plan had been proposed seven years ago under President Mubarak who was himself reviving an old Israeli plan to flood Gaza's tunnels. Back then Palestinian officials suggested that if Egypt wanted to flood the tunnels they should at least do so with fresh water. President Mubarak's government decided the plan was too expensive and abandoned it. Now President el-Sisi's government is proceeding with plans to pump a million gallons of seawater a month into its frontier area with southern Gaza for a whole year. The sea water will be pumped from a marine area already contaminated with sewage, creating a grave potential public health risk on both sides of the frontier.

According to Nizar al Wahidi, no Environmental Impact Assessment has been done taking into account the geophysics, hydrology and soil structure. The aquifer is Gaza's main fresh water resource. Egypt's plan will render many thousands of hectares of agricultural land permanently unproductive, because the rate of salination will make it impossible to recover the land for agricultural use. Al Wahidi says that for Gaza the plan means the loss of 3,000 water wells in the first year after pumping begins. The water supply to Rafah city located on the frontier will be affected immediately. Right now, the Egyptian authorities have dug the moat that will channel the contaminated seawater to and along the frontier area and also laid the pipes that will inject the water into the tunnels, thus poisoning the aquifer. The last phase of the engineering work to begin implementing the plan is to complete the pumping installation and its intake pipeline from the sea.

The Palestinian authorities have already discovered sinkholes appearing as a result of test flooding by the Egyptian engineers. Mazen Samir al Banna of the Palestinian Water Authority told Webb Pullman he fears full scale pumping may begin within a couple of weeks. Just as the economic blockade of Gaza is illegal so are Egypt's plans to deny fresh water to people in Gaza. Egypt is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity which came into force on Dec. 29, 1993. That Convention itself is supplemented by other conventions that give more precision to the applicable principles in various relevant areas. In the case of international water management, the U.N. Watercourses Convention is the relevant U.N. instrument. Egypt has not signed that Convention, but the United Nations General Assembly adopted it as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses on May 21, 1997 and the Convention came into force in Aug. 2014. Earlier, in 2008, the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 63/124 on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers.

Even without being party to the U.N. Watercourses Convention, Egypt is obliged to follow basic norms of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Article 3 of the Convention states that parties have “the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”. Article 5 of the Convention states that parties will “cooperate with other Contracting Parties, directly or, where appropriate, through competent international organizations, in respect of areas beyond national jurisdiction and on other matters of mutual interest, for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” Article 14 of the Convention binds parties to minimize damage to neighboring States.

Egypt's obligations under Articles 3 and 14 of the Convention on Biological Diversity are spelled out more precisely in the UN Watercourses Convention and the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, particularly the obligation not to cause transboundary impact. Article 27 of the Convention on Biological Diversity provides the procedure to be followed to resolve disputes. In this case Egypt is flagrantly violating its obligation to seek a negotiated settlement to Palestinian objections to its plan to destroy Gaza's sources of fresh water. Egypt's government has made clear it has every intention of maximizing the damage to Gaza's aquifer in categorical violation of its obligation to avoid adverse impact on Palestine, which while still not quite a full State thanks to support for the colonialist arguments of the Israeli government from the United States and its allies, is an independent territory beyond Egypt's own jurisdiction.

In an email interview this week, we were able to ask Mazen al Banna of Palestine's Water Authority his view of the Egyptian plan to flood Gaza's tunnels.

Tortilla con Sal: Is Egypt making any arguments to justify this environmental terrorism?

Mazen al Banna: I do not know the Egyptian argument for this project, but I know that this project will double the siege of Gaza and kill the both the humans and the environment in the southern area of Gaza and it will have indirect consequences on all sectors in Gaza Strip, the existing water crisis, the agricultural, the food security, the economy, the social and at the end the national security of Palestinians .

TcS: Surely such action is completely illegal? What are the relevant international laws? If Egypt's action affects its own population, presumably they are violating their own laws too, is that true?

Mazen al Banna: In 2009, the U.N. Assembly issued a Resolution I think 63/124. If I am correct the Resolution talks about the law of transboundary groundwater aquifers, it talks about the principles and rules that should govern the relation between the countries that share the same aquifer, one of these is the obligation not to make a major harm even if the activities are done inside the sovereignty of any of these countries .

TcS: Do you think this action is being carried out in coordination with the Israeli authorities? What other political considerations would influence Egypt to take such extreme illegal action?

Mazen al Banna: In history, this project was going to be implemented by the Israeli Occupation in 2003, in the corridor of Philadelphia south of Gaza strip to prevent weapons smuggling as the occupation declared at that time. Then in 2009-2010, Mubarak, the preceding Egyptian President, started to construct the metallic wall and so on, but the Arab Spring caused him not to complete that project. Now the present Egyptian President el-Sisi is doing that, this project is done to double the siege on Gaza's people.

TcS: If the remaining tunnels are flooded how soon would the population in Gaza begin to suffer the consequences? What would be the immediate effects? What would be the medium and long term effects on Gaza?

Mazen al Banna: The immediate consequences are the collapse of nearby buildings, roads, water and waste water infrastructure, waste water treatment plant in Rafah City in the vicinity of the borders, six municipal wells exist near the borders, they will be affected very soon, agricultural wells near the borders will be affected, so the agricultural sector will be affected and economic and social impacts will result. The medium and long term consequences will be the destruction of agricultural soil, the groundwater aquifer; the drinking water sector (the groundwater desalination plants in the area will not be able to produce desalinated drinking water, so the Palestinian citizen will be thirsty); the agricultural sector and the economical sector - no jobs, poverty increase, high levels of prices regarding agricultural products, we may need to import such products from outside; the social impacts, immigration to outside or to north of Gaza. This will result in putting pressures on the existing natural resources and other resources like lands, high levels of living, on water resources in north of Gaza etc.

The Palestinian authorities are calling on international governments and non-governmental human rights and environmental organizations as well as regional Arab and Islamic organizations to urge the Egyptian government and the Egyptian army to cancel this catastrophic project which will destroy the environment in both Gaza and Egypt as well as devastate both Palestinian and Egyptian lives. As usual, the governments of North America and Europe and their enormous media and human rights apparatus do little more than observe complacently while a foreign government, in this case Egypt, proceeds with the destruction of the Palestinian people's land and lives.

For more information contact:

  • Nizar Al Wahidi - Telephone: +970 59 8936 625 / E-mail : nizar_alwahidi@yahoo.com

  • Mazen Al Banna - Telephone: +970 59 8858 662 / E-mail : bannamazennew@hotmail.com

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"Tortilla con Sal is an anti-imperialist collective based in Nicaragua producing information in various media on national, regional and international affairs. In Nicaragua, we work closely with grass roots community organizations and cooperatives. We strongly support the policies of sovereign national development and regional integration based on peace and solidarity promoted by the member countries of ALBA."
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