In Gaza the war drags on

Three weeks after both sides declared a ceasefire, the effects of further Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli missile strikes are being felt across the Gaza Strip, writes Michael Robin Bailey.

I am standing next to the drinking water well in El Atattara. There was a big jagged hole in the wall. Large enough to climb through.

A second smaller hole in an internal wall showed the trajectory of the missile inside the pump house. The mess inside had been cleaned up since yesterday morning. The wrecked electrical control panel had been replaced by water utility engineers. Outside, the huge orange generator sits smashed, awaiting repair. Shrapnel holes in the diesel tank have already been welded over. Above, electricity cables have been stripped from the road side pylon by the missile as it travelled from helicopter to the drinking water well.

Across a muddy road some of the 10,000 people the drinking water well serves live in 86 damp white tents. Their sleep had been disturbed the previous night.  The clatter of the helicopter woke them. The explosion of the missile jolted them upright. I wonder what they felt so soon after losing their homes to similar explosions.

Three weeks after the Israeli and Hamas ceasefires comes a further reminder not to fire rockets at Israeli towns. Ha’aretz newspaper tells readers ‘On Monday (9 February 2009), the Israel Air Force hit two Hamas positions in Gaza in response to rocket attacks on Israel launched by militants in the coastal strip on the preceding day, the army said.’

Nine other drinking water wells had been destroyed during the three week war in Gaza. The water utility spokesman tells me that 300,000 people in North Gaza still have no running drinking water supply. They rely on water brought daily by tankers. Some tankers are organised by humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam. Others are operated by merchants who charge high prices.

I have come here to see this latest damage in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza. Earlier I was looking at the aftermath of damage caused during the war three weeks ago. I was in the rural district of Sheikh Adjlin to meet Mohammed Haidil. He showed me where a hole blown in the wall of a waste water treatment lake had released a torrent of sand and sewage. Mohammed dug into the sand covering his fields. His hoe brought up foul smelling black slime everywhere he dug it in. He had vainly dug the sand and sewage from around each of his olive trees. “They are already dead. The roots have been burned by the sewage. All of this is dead.” His hand swept in an arc taking in the fields all around us. The top branches of trees stuck through the sand like bare bushes. What was recently a small valley was now a flat dead expanse drowned by sand and sewage.

Mohammed does not know how he will recover his land. All the sand and sewage will have to be dug out. The land will need time to recover. The olive trees and the almond trees will have to be replaced. 13,000 farmers in Gaza now face starting again. Rehabilitating their ruined land. Rebuilding their crushed greenhouses.  Redigging their agricultural wells.

In Palestine land is measured in dunums. Rehabilitation of farm-land is measured in thousands of dollars. One and a half thousand dollars per dunum for a field.  Three times as much for greenhouses. Dunums are not very big. You get four in an acre. Mohammed has had six dunums wrecked by the sewage flood. Not much but it was all he had to earn his living. All he had to feed his children. Now what will he do? He doesn’t know. Neither do I.

War damage to Gaza’s water and sanitation services will cost an estimated six million dollars. The latest Israeli military airstrike on a drinking water well comes before a comprehensive repair programme has even started.  Doctors I talked to this week told me that the number of stomach and respiratory infections are rising week by week. People in Gaza are exhausted by 20 months of blockade and three weeks of intense conflict. Further rockets and missiles will not help them. Failure to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit or the Palestinians held as political prisoners or without trial in Israeli administrative detention will not help them. Continued restrictions on humanitarian aid flows or fuel into the market in Gaza will not help them. A new political will to see the blockade lifted, the prisoners freed and the Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles being stopped could help them. But people have lost hope and no one in Gaza asks me when that might be.


One of the hundreds of houses destroyed by armored bulldozer, Beit Lahia, Gaza. Credit: Kenny Rae/Oxfam

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