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Israel shuts down beaches polluted by sewage from besieged Gaza Strip

July 8, 2017 12:19 P.M. (Updated: July 8, 2017 5:08 P.M.)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men read the Tashlich prayer on the beach in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, 2012 (AFP/Jack Guez/File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli authorities were forced to close beaches in southern Israel on Wednesday after untreated sewage from the nearby besieged Gaza Strip polluted the surrounding Mediterranean waters, as Gaza’s sewage treatment facility was forced to close due to the electricity crisis ongoing in the coastal enclave.

Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Israeli Health Ministry banned swimming on beaches at Zikim and Ashkelon National Park after sewage was detected in the water.

Haaretz added that Israeli officials have suspected that the sewage most likely originated from Gaza after the territory’s sewage treatment facility was forced to close owing to a crippling power crisis, causing sewage to drift onto the Israeli side of the border and pollute the beaches.

It was unclear when Israeli authorities planned to reopen the beaches.

Israeli NGO Gisha, which focuses on Gaza, also said that it was likely the two beaches were shut down due to pollution originating from Gaza's untreated sewage. "This deterioration is another consequence of the current electricity crisis in Gaza. Without electricity, sewage treatment facilities cannot operate. Approximately 110-million liters of untreated or partially treated sewage are pumped in to the sea each day."

"The pollution of Ashkelon’s beaches is far from surprising, seeing as half of Gaza’s beaches have been closed to swimming for weeks, due to dangerous levels of pollution," the group's statement continued. "Additional beaches are expected to be closed soon as a result of the inability to treat sewage." 

At the start of the month, reports emerged that Israeli authorities were discussing the possibility of constructing a sewage pipeline for neighborhoods in the northern besieged coastal enclave to prevent sewage from polluting areas on the Israeli side of the border.

"This is an important step, but an insufficient one," Gisha wrote in the statement. "The situation necessitates a comprehensive, sustainable, and long term solution; one that will provide the residents of Gaza with enough electricity to lead normal lives suited to the 21st century." 

The NGO insisted that "Israel must play an active role in reaching such a solution, first and foremost because of the responsibility it owes to Gaza’s residents following 50 years of control over the Strip; moreover, because it is within Israel’s own interest to find a solution, as implied by the recent pollution of Ashkelon’s beaches." 

"Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the de facto authorities in Gaza, Egypt, and the international community must cooperate to promote safe and healthy futures for all residents of this region."

In May, the PA decided to slash funding for Israeli fuel to the coastal enclave, and requested that Israeli authorities dramatically reduce its supply of electricity to Gaza, which was already reeling from lack of adequate access to electricity and fuel.

As a result of agreements between Hamas, the de facto leaders in Gaza, and Egyptian authorities, Egypt imported millions of liters of fuel into the territory, averting a full humanitarian collapse in the coastal enclave as Israel began to gradually reduce its supply of electricity.

However, residents in Gaza still only have electricity for a few hours each day, even after the Egyptian fuel shipments.

The PA has been the center of widespread condemnation in recent weeks for its policies in Gaza aimed at putting pressure on Hamas to relinquish control of the besieged coastal enclave and hand over the territory to the PA.

Such policies implemented by the PA in recent weeks, including allegedly halting medical referrals to patients in Gaza to receive medical treatment outside of the territory -- which led to the deaths of 3 newborns and 11 others over the previous three months -- has been condemned by Hamas, the international community, and many Palestinians.

At the same time, patients in Gaza have been forced to apply for permits to exit the territory for treatment owing to the lack of medicine and equipment after the PA cut its funding to the medical sector in the besieged enclave, which has seen the typical $4 million monthly budget of Gaza’s health ministry plummet to just $500,000.

Gaza, which marked its 10th year under an Israeli-enforced blockade last month, has struggled for years with power shortages due to limited fuel access and degraded infrastructure.

Egypt, which borders Gaza in the south, has also upheld the blockade following President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013, subsequently closing the Rafah crossing to Palestinians.

The UN has warned that the Gaza Strip would become uninhabitable for residents by 2020, pointing to the devastation of war and a decade of Israel's blockade.
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