Thirsting for Change: Israel’s War on Gaza’s Water Supply

A father visiting his son in the hospital might otherwise be a picturesque moment. In any other country it could be a time for parental bonding; an opportunity for family members to care for those most precious to them. Yet recently in Gaza, after repeatedly and desperately imploring the shattered corpse of his four-year old son to “wake up”, the young father, Salman Abu Namous, was ushered from the hospital room in a state of near collapse.

Such images may easily evoke words like “war crime” in the minds of many onlookers. United Nations figures indicate that from the death toll after just days of Israeli bombardment, eighty one percent of casualties were civilians, twenty one percent of them children.

In ongoing raids, the Israeli air force have also destroyed water wells and lengths of pipeline, in the process, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), leaving “hundreds of thousands” of Gazans without adequate hydration.

The above constitutes a clear violation of article 54 of Additional Protocol One to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. In prose that leaves little room for doubt, the actual text of the article states that it is “prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” with “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works” coming in for special mention.

In a press release distributed on July 15th, the ICRC cited “repeated bombing” that had “devastating Gaza’s fragile water infrastructure.” A variety of other civilian installations were rendered inoperable due to the mounting water shortages, with schools, hospitals and refugee camps bearing the brunt of the hardship. UN figures indicate that a third of the population were left unsupplied.

Guillaume Pierrehumbert, a water and sanitation expert with the ICRC, cited the issues posed by a badly damaged sewer system, with water contamination bringing with it the mounting risk of disease. The deaths of several maintenance technicians also severely limited repair work.

“Water is a big issue,” said Christian Cardon, head of the ICRC operation in Gaza. “To give you an example [of the crisis], the ICRC was recently in a refugee camp north of Gaza city, where some seventy thousand people live. Yet it’s now [since July 12th] been seven days since these people had access to water.”

The Al-Shati refugee camp mentioned above contains a large number of children, with some thirty five percent of occupants either being pregnant mothers or infants under the age of six months. Camp residents are now thought to be drawing water from wells with an excessively high saline content. In addition, repair work to the local water supply is dependent on negotiations between the ICRC and the IDF to ensure workers can operate without coming under fire.

“Water has been a critical problem in Gaza for some time,” said Sean Maguire, the Head of Communications and spokesman for the ICRC in Britain and Ireland. “Gaza actually gets much of its water from one single aquifer whose usable levels have been dropping dramatically as a result of over-use and aging equipment.”

Israeli media has a different view. In an article for Arutz Sheva, Tova Durin scrutinizes ICRC findings, making the claim that “Israel has continued to send humanitarian aid into Gaza throughout the operation, and continues to provide the bulk of Gaza’s water, electricity, gas, and communications infrastructure – despite the fact that Hamas has fired over 8,500 rockets on Israeli civilians since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.”

Neill Kirrane is a policy adviser with the Middle East office of the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Resource Center. “In many respects Israeli society is shifting politically to the right,” he said. “There is this idea growing that the Palestinians have never had it any better, and a standard view from the IDF is that there are no issues with bringing anything in and out of Gaza and there is no humanitarian crisis. It gets to the point that there’s a notion [in Israel] that people in Gaza are building mansions and swimming pools and so there’s a problem when it comes to appreciating reality and good journalism.”

Damage to Gaza’s civilian infrastructure is not a new phenomenon. In 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead, IDF actions again took a toll on Palestinian food and agriculture, with the Red Cross citing the destruction of “thousands of citrus, olive and palm groves” alongside “irrigation systems, wells and greenhouses.” Gaza’s water supply has still not fully recovered, with some ninety percent of the supply being unfit for consumption, forcing many residents to rely on expensive bottled water brought in from elsewhere.

“The Gaza Strip was absolutely decimated during [the 2008-2009 Israeli Operation] Cast Lead,” said Kirrane. “Aid agencies that do work there have been playing catch-up ever since when it comes to restoring some sense of normality. It’s not the case that before this current conflict Gaza was starting from point zero in terms of its water supply; it was already in a terrible state and was very much inadequate for the population’s needs.”

Targeting Water

Despite playing a sizable part in the original drafting of the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention, Israel opted out of signing them. Yet despite not signing the protocols Israel may yet still be bound by them. “Israel is not actually the only country to not sign the protocol,” argues Sean Maguire of the ICRC. “The USA, for instance, did not sign, but there are legal boundaries that all nations should be abiding by in a conflict zone that prohibit the targeting of civilian objects.”

Such an argument is reinforced by the fact that since the entry of the additional protocols in 1977, a great many nations have ascribed to them, in the process arguably leading to their universal validity as part of international customary law.

In a 2011 Policy Paper for the Israel Democracy Institute, legal researchers Ruth Lapidot, Yuval Shany and Ido Rosenzweig discuss Israel’s opting out of the protocols. Stating that “if it turns out that the provisions of the protocols, to which Israel objected, have become international customary law over the years, the decision not to join the protocols will have limited practical effect, because such provisions bind Israel in any event.”

So why the controversy? For one, it may have been the case that the heart of Israel’s reticence to join the protocols stemmed from articles involving the extension of prisoner of war status to combatants not under the control of a recognized state party. Prior to Palestine’s ascension to statehood last year, this would have included armed Palestinians that the IDF may treat as criminals rather than legitimate soldiers.

Yet if it remains incumbent upon Israel to abide by established customary law in regards to civilian objects, it would seem that they are also called upon to recognize the additional protocols regarding destroying civilian access to water. What constitutes a civilian object is defined in Article 52 of Additional Protocol One as “all objects which are not military objectives” or currently occupied and in use by armed units.

In this respect, a claim that the treatment plants, fresh water wells and sewage lines recently destroyed by IDF air attack actually constituted a military objective seems difficult to comprehend. Their nature, best described by Article 54 as “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” seems well grounded.

But if the above is to be taken seriously, it shows that it is possible for a civilian building to lose its status as a civilian object if utilized for military purposes. Indeed, according to Diakonia, “civilian objects only lose their civilian status if they are making an effective contribution to military action. Examples of this include storing weapons or launching attacks.”

But is this the case now with Gaza’s water infrastructure? Neill Kirrane thinks not. “Attacks on water supplies are legally absolutely prohibited,” he said. “Water supplies and infrastructure cannot be used militarily unlike a hospital or other originally civilian building and so there is just no excuse for targeting them.”

Yet where lies the solution? Neill believes the key lies with the full implementation of the law: “Respect for the Geneva Conventions isn’t really being addressed in this conflict. Both Israel and Hamas need to start taking the law seriously. If guilty parties had been held to account in 2009 at the end of Cast Lead we wouldn’t be in this situation today. And if a new approach in regards to the law doesn’t happen then I don’t see how, even if a cease fire comes about, we won’t simply end up in this very same situation at a later date.”

“There was an issue with the first attempt at a cease fire, which fell through since Hamas claimed they had not even been consulted,” explains Neill. “But it’s also a reality that people in Gaza are saying that we do not want to just go back to the status quo – massive unemployment, undrinkable water, real restrictions on who can get in and out or what can be brought in. They want the siege lifted, and that’s something the European Union, the United Nations, in fact the whole international community is looking for.”