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ICE Conflict Case GAZA

TED Conflict Studies

Water and Conflict in the Gaza Strip

CASE NAME: Gaza Strip Water Conflict
CASE AUTHOR: Stephanie Goeller, December 1997

I. Case Identification


An essential component of human survival, clean and abundant water is an invaluable and irreplacable commodity. The scarcity of potable water presents a plethora of problems to various regions of the world and often breeds conflict.

The situation in the Gaza Strip serves as a prime example of this type of conflict. Water scarcity and mismanagement has significantly aggravated the Arab-Israeli conflict (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995) . This situation has previously resulted in violence and threatens to erupt on a larger scale in the future.




The Gaza Strip, a 40km by 10km stretch of land is located on the Mediterranean Coast of the Middle East where Israel meets the Sinai Peninsula. This 360 sq km area of land has 40 km of coastline, an 11 km boundary with Egypt, and a 51 km boundary with Israel. 13% of the Strip is comprised of arable land, 32% of permanent crops, and 55% other usages. 115 sq km of this land is irrigated and desertification is currently an important environmental issue. Moreover, this land is extremely densely populated - a third of its population lives in United Nations (UN)-run refugee camps.

Gaza has a temperate climate with mild winters and dry hot summers which subject the land to envirotranspiration (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995). Rainfall generally follows a two year cycle, one wet and one dry and varies dramatically from polar ends of the Strip. The average annual rainfall in Gaza is equal to roughly 117 million cubic meters (MCM), of which 61% is thought to be lost to evaporation and 2.5% to surface runoff. The remainder recharges its only natural freshwater supply, the Gaza aquifer which is located a few meters from the surface. The Gaza Strip is generally composed of sandstone thus its aquifer is thought to be highly permeable (Palnet). Its replenishment capacity is 42 MCM and it is thought to be tapped by 2500 wells and boreholes which extract 45 MCM.


Of the Gaza Strip's population (approximately 1 million), 99.4% are Palestinian Arab, and 0.6% are Jewish settlers living in 24 settlements. The population growth rate is around 5.5% with a total fertility rate at 7.74 children born/woman. It is important to note that the Gaza Strip has a considerably high infant mortality rate at 30.6 deaths per 1000 live births. The population is predominantly Muslim (Sunni) - 98.7%, but is also Christian - 0.7%, and Jewish - 0.6%.

The Gaza Strip was part of Palestine under the British mandate from 1917-1948. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 incorporated two-thirds of mandate Gaza into Israel, and the remaining third came under the control of the Egyptian military administration. These events produced a massive exodus of approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees into the Egyptian sector of Gaza. This marginal land's 365 sq km is now what is referred to as the Gaza Strip. The huge influx of refugees in 1948 increased the Gaza Strip's population by more than 300% and was accompanied by resource-loss, the disruption of domestic trade, and an unstable economic situtation which the Egyptian administration did little to rectify (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995).

When the Israelis occupied Gaza Strip in 1967 after the Six Day War, Gaza's economy was dominated by its service sector and was heavily dependent on citrus agriculture. Israeli occupation was translated into strict Israeli control of land, water resources, and political dominance. There existed discriminatory restrictions on training and research, limited infrastructure development, a lack of financial support for Palestinians, and severe prohibitions on travel and on exports. These discriminatory policies have resulted in the politcal and economic isolation of the Palestinian population (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995).

Resistance to Israeli domination created the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella organization for various groups supporting the Palestinian plight. Although originally associated with airplane hijackings and other terrorist activities, the PLO was granted observer status in the UN as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." However, the PLO's quotidian efficacy was minimal, as demonstrated by the advent of the intifadah in 1987.

The intifadah, primarily a grassroots uprising, began in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, and was sustained for some time. These events drew important media coverage to the Palestian cause, yet sharply aggravated the political and economic climate in Gaza. Lives were lost, living conditions deteriorated, Palestinians began fighting amongst themselves, and Israel imposed curfews and border closures. The Persian Gulf War further aggravated the tense situation in Gaza, as aid to the PLO from Saudi Arabia was terminated and export markets for citrus fruits were closed off.

As violence continued to rise, Rabin's government sealed off the territories, preventing 130,000 Palestinians from reaching their jobs in Israel. In one fell swoop, this created an astronomical number of unemployed workers which the economy in Gaza was incapable of absorbing. Yasser Arafat eventually called an end to the intifadah to prevent complete deterioration of the situation, and conducted secret talks with Rabin which resulted in the Gaza-Jericho First Accord in August 1993. The Accord created a riparian state providing limited authority for Gaza Palestinians (the Palestinian Authority PA). Further steps towards peace between Palestine and Israel are conditional on the PA's success in establishing a stable political authority in Gaza. Since the time of the signing, freedom of movement for Palestinians has actually declined, travel between Gaza and the West Bank is virtually impossible, Israeli troop levels have not been reduced and the military continues to control over one-third of Gaza's territory (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995).

Gaza under the PA has seen an increase in the unemployment level, a continuation of substandard living conditions for a large number of Palestinians, violent clashes with Israeli security forces, and the rise of Islamic militants and their practice of launching suicide bombings. Hundreds have been killed since the Accord in 1993.


Water scarcity has played a very large part in this conflict. To best understand the magnitude of its role, it is essential to examine the various reasons for its scarcity, linking the socio-political climate with changes in the ecosystem. The three categories of resource scarcity listed below are borrowed from Homer-Dixon and Kelly (1995) as they provide a clear means of organization for examining the Gaza Strip's complex environmental conditions. Although discussed separately, these types of scarcity exist concurrently and play a significant part in this case.


Structural scarcity is thought to be the result of the inequitable distribution of water in Gaza. In 1967 Israel declared all water resoutces to be state owned and controlled by the military. During this time, Military Order 158 was enacted and prohibited only the Arab population of Gaza from drilling new wells without a permit. Palestinian water consumption was also regulated by strict quotas, the uprooting of thousands of citrus trees, the demolition of cisterns, and the blockage of natural springs and existing wells. These consumption levels have for the most part been maintained to present (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995).

Yet, Israelis in Gaza have no restrictions on water consumption. Rather, their consumption is subsidized, encourgaing overuse and misuse (Isaac 1997). They have also been favored through selective appropriation of agricultural land having the best groundwater quantity and quality, and uneven pricing schemes. Gaza Palestinians pay up to $1.20/cubic meter while Israeli settlers only pay $0.10/cubic meter for water. Elmusa (1994) states that "relative to per capita income, Palestinians pay as much as twenty times what Israeli settlers pay for water."

Discriminatory Israeli water policies in Gaza can be viewed as an attempt to transfer the brunt of water scarcity to Palestinians while buffering Israelis. As such, Israeli settlements prosper in the midst of a faltering Palestinian economy. This widening gap can only continue to foment substantial conflict between the two communities.


Demand-induced scarcity is defined as that "caused by population growth or increased per capita activity; the resource must be divided among more people, or more intensive activity increases demand for its use (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995)." As previously mentioned, the mass exodus of refugees to the Gaza Strip area in 1948 created a serious shock to its population size. 70% of Gaza's population today is thought to be comprised of the original 1948 refugees and their descendants. Gaza's population is estimated between 700,000 and one million people, but is not an exact number as no census has been taken since 1967. Although this region has a high infant mortality rate, it boasts one of the highest growth rates in the world between 5.2 and 6%. Fertility is highest in refugee camps, those areas though to be under significant environmental stress (Homer-Dixon and Kelly 1995). As a result, per capita water availability has decreased dramatically. Some predict that drinking water alone will soon exceed safe supply levels.

As a result of this dense population, the Gaza Strip Aquifer has been thought to be over-pumped for some time, outstriping its sustainable supply of 65 MCM. Moreover, Israel has been tapping this aquifer and its replenishment from outside Gaza (Shawa 1994). Consequently, the aquifer's water table has been pumped far below its recharge rate, making it susceptible to severe saltwater intrusion and causing supply-induced scarcity (Isaac 1997).


Supply-induced scarcity, a drop in renewable resource supply due to water degradation or depletion, has existed in the Gaza Strip since Egyptian control (Elmusa 1994). Overpumping of the Gaza aquifer draws approximately 15-20 centimeters from its original level of 3-5 meters above sea level. As the water table falls, saltwater from the Mediterranean and nearby saline aquifers introduces itself into the Gaza aquifer. Saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean Sea has been detected up to 1.5 kilometers inland, and continues to threaten the salinization of the entire aquifer. In many parts, the water is so saline that it may damage soil and crop yields, and hence is unsuitable for irrigation. Thus, citrus farming, Gaza's main agricultural product which is highly intolerant of salt, is suffering from declining quality and crop yields.

Supply-induced scarcity is also the product of the unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers which have chemically contaminated Gaza's groundwater (Bellisari 1994). Since the aquifer is close to the surface, it is highly susceptible to this type of pollution.

Lastly, Gaza water is being contaminated by the improper disposal of waste matter. Roughly 10% of Gaza's population is not served by any type of wastewater management system, and thus dumps raw sewage onto sand dunes. In addition, poorly maintained septic tanks and soaking pits frequently overflow into streets and homes. All refugee camps have solid waste collection, but no sanitary landfill sites exist anywhere in Gaza.

These various contaminations of the Gaza water supply have drastically decreased the amount of potable water available. These effects obviously pose serious health hazards for the people of Gaza who suffer high incidence of kidney and liver complaints, high infant mortality, cancer, waterborne infectious diseases such as cholera, and intestinal parasites.


These three types of water scarcity have contributed to deteriorating health standards, agricultural and economic decline, and increased socio-political tension between Israelis and Palestinians. As matters continue to worsen, the Palestinian Authority will find itself increasingly incapable of effectively dealing with problems, maintaining peace, and thus upholding its legitimacy both in the eyes of its people and the Israeli nation. Resolving the issues presented by water scarcity are essential to containing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Geographic Domain: Middle East
Geographic Site: NorthWest MIDEST
Geographic Impact: Gaza Strip

II. Conflict and Environment



The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza is unique in that the Palestinian Authority has only limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the level of conflict itself varies as a result of many factors, only one of which is the distribution and availability of water. However, the fragility of the peace process and Gaza's self-rule is such that the conflict threatens to escalate.







III. Other Information Sources


Cases in ICE:








Bellisari, Anna. 1994. "Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories," Journal of Palestine Studies 23, no.2.

Berck, P. and Lipow, J. 1993. "Water and an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement," Eurames Conference, Warwick University, England.

Bulloch, John, and Adel Darwish. 1993. "Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East," London: Victor Gollancz.

Elmusa, Sharif. 1994. "The Israeli-Palestinian Water Dispute Can be Resolved," Palestine-Israel Journal, no.3.

Gobbay, Shoshanna. 1991. "Focus: The Impending Water Crisis," Israel Environment Bulletin, Vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 2-11.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas and Kimberley Kelly. 1995. "Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of Gaza," Project on Environment, Population and Security. American Association for the Advancement of Science and the University of Toronto.

Isaac, Jad. 1997. "A Sober Approach to the Water Crisis in the Middle East," Applied Research Institute -Jerusalem.

Postel, Sandra. 1992. "The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity," London: Earthscan Publications.

Shawa, Isam R. 1994. "Water Situation in the Gaza Strip," Water and Peace in the Middle East, ed. Isaac & Shuval. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shqueir, Adnan. 1995. "The Environment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Palestine-Israel Journal 2, no.5.

Zarour, H, and Jad Isaac, 1993. "Nature's Apportionment and the Open Market: a Promising Solution to the Arab-Israeli Water Conflict," Water International, 18.

ibid, 1991. "The Water Crisis in the Occupied Territories," VII World Congress on Water, Rabat, Morocco.


Water Resources in Gaza

Water Quality in the West Bank

PALNET: Palestine the Promising Land

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Gaza Strip

UNDP, Water and the West Bank and Gaza

The YESHA Council of Judea Samaria and Gaza

ROY: Undeveloping Gaza