Gaza’s sewage situation is so dire that the Health Ministry was forced to shut down Zikim Beach in Ashkelon on Wednesday due to fecal contamination from the Strip.
With dwindling electricity supplies unable to power the Strip’s already meager wastewater treatment infrastructure, raw sewage is flowing not only through the channels in Gaza, but also to the Israeli beaches of Ashkelon and the Nahal Hanun riverbed.
To address the problem, Water Authority representative Baruch Nagar said there are plans to build a NIS 3 million pipeline to pump the Gazan sewage to Sderot for treatment.
He spoke at an emergency session of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on Wednesday, which had been called by MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) and MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union).
Raw sewage discharged from Gaza flows on a daily basis into Israel, through both the Mediterranean Sea and Nahal Hanun, which crosses the border on land.
The wastewater flow pollutes Israel’s groundwater, harms the function of the Ashkelon desalination plant and endangers the health of residents of the southern Coastal Plain, the Knesset members warned.
But the Gaza electricity crisis, which has reduced the Strip’s 2 million residents to four hours of electricity a day, has also left the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Project without enough power to treat the sewage.
Even before the latest electricity crisis, the World Bank-financed Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment facility was never completed due to a lack of a consistent electricity supply.
Svetlova, along with other Knesset members, advocated reaching out to international donors to pay for the electricity and associated infrastructure necessary to revive the treatment plant.
“There is an agreement with the IDF to build a dedicated power line for the sewage facility in northern Gaza,” she said. “There are international bodies that can be pressured on a diplomatic level, and thus prevent the pollution of the sea in Ashkelon.
“The responsibility lies with us. We have to think pragmatically how to protect the residents of the South,” Svetlova said.
Nagar told the Knesset panel that Israeli workers have finished building a mechanism to obstruct the sewage flow. Nonetheless, they are still dealing with the sewage that crossed the border a week ago.
“We blocked the sewage in pools, and three vacuum trucks empty them every day,” Nagar said. “The [groundwater] reservoir is on our side. There is no leakage.”
To be safe, however, Nagar said that the Water Authority has plans to build a pipeline to bring the sewage to Sderot for treatment.
Asked by committee chairman David Amsalem why the Water Authority had not already built such a pipeline, Nagar explained that Gazan sewage had for years been reaching Israel through the Mediterranean Sea, but only recently began to arrive through Nahal Hanun. The pipeline, he said, would take about a year to build and would function as a backup to the World Bank’s sewage facility.
Dafna Zeira, a Health Ministry representative, warned that Sderot’s sewage facilities might not be able to handle the additional flow from Gaza.
“Overloading the system will harm the ability to reclaim water, and upgrading the sewage treatment plants in Sderot so that they could absorb sewage from Gaza would take years,” Zeira said.
While facilities in Sderot can handle 9,000 cubic meters of wastewater daily, they are already treating 7,600 cubic meters today, and several new neighborhoods in the city are slated to be connected, according to Zeira.
“A steady flow of sewage from Gaza will cause the plant to shut down,” she said.
Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, said building such a pipeline would only be “a band-aid” for a much larger problem. The only way to solve northern Gaza’s wastewater crisis is to bring electricity directly to the World Bank facility, he said.
“The only way that will happen in the near time frame is if a dedicated electricity line is built from Israel straight to the plant, which is right next to the fence with Israel,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday afternoon. “Israel needs to move forward on the planning of that dedicated electricity line tomorrow morning, so that by the end of this year, when the sewage treatment plant is completed, it can start operations.”
If Israel does not advance such a plan, its citizens risk continued harm from the Gaza sewage, Bromberg warned.
“First and foremost, local residents need to be alarmed by the fact that Zikim Beach is now closed, one of the wells closest to Gaza is now closed, millions of cubic meters of potable water in Israel are now at risk,” he said.
“This is not crying wolf. We see here the situation getting more and more serious. We can prevent pandemic outbreaks of disease. It’s a responsibility that must be met.”
The Gaza electricity crisis, however, is one of the many casualties of a strong push by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to regain control of Gaza, a decade after Hamas ousted his Fatah party there in a bloody coup.
The PA has told the IDF that it plans to only pay 60% of the electricity bill for the power the Israel Electric Corporation has until now supplied to Gaza. It has also imposed an onerous tax on the diesel fuel needed to run the Strip’s sole power plant.
Egypt in the last week has sent fuel into Gaza for the plant, a move which has helped make up for some of the reduction of power from Israel.
Analyzing the situation in Gaza, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said Hamas is caught between governing and being a terrorist organization, and between wanting money from Iran and good ties with Egypt.
“Israel has an interest in positive dynamics in Gaza, but one cannot demand from the State of Israel to use its state budget for infrastructure that is harmed because of an internal Palestinian conflict, while Hamas invests money in terrorism,” he told the MKs.
Eisenkot said that Hamas has agreed to take responsibility and pay for fuel imported from Egypt, because “the electricity crisis is an internal Palestinian matter.”
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.