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Thursday, 22 January 2009

COHRE statement on water and sanitation catastrophe in Gaza

The collapse of Gaza's water and waste water sector: Grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law

Following twenty two consecutive days of Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, water and sanitation services and facilities are on the brink of collapse. The water and sanitation sector was already in a dire state following the 18 month blockade on Gaza, which had prevented the entry of material necessary for construction and repair of water and sanitation facilities as well as the fuel and electricity necessary to operate essential services such as sewage pumping stations and water wells. Israel's aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip beginning on the 27 December 2008 and the ground invasion beginning on the 3 January 2009 have turned an already desperate humanitarian situation into a catastrophe.

Currently more than half a million residents of the Gaza Strip (a third of the population) have no access to clean water. Some have been without water for over ten days. The Costal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) the water sector service provider in Gaza, has announced that it is no longer able to maintain services in the water and waste water sector due to concerns for staff safety and an acute shortage of spare parts, materials, equipment, electricity and fuel required to rehabilitate facilities and operate services.

Israeli military attacks have caused extensive damage to water and sanitation infrastructure. Due to damage to water pipes more than 30,000 residents in Nussierate city are without a water supply as well as more than 200,000 residents in Gaza City. Destruction of El Edara well has left more than 25,000 people in Jabalia city without a water supply. Damage to an electrical transistor that operates a water well, has left more than 40,000 residents of southern Tal Al Hawa city without water. Destruction of water filling points has been reported, long queues of people are waiting at water filling points and water trucks are desperately needed to supply those without access to a water supply. Three staff members from the Palestinian Water Authority have been killed during the course of Israel's military assault on Gaza, two working in the waste water sector and one who was working at a water well at the time.

Sewage is currently overflowing into residential areas posing an extreme threat to people's health and the environment. The main sewerage line in Beit Hanoun has been destroyed and the main power generator at Beit Lahia waste water treatment plant has been attacked. Due to the presence of Israeli troops in the Netzarim area the Gaza waste water treatment plant has stopped operating and is in danger of collapse. Waste water from this plant is now reported to be flooding the area up to 1 km distance from the plant. The waste water level at the main Beit Lahia waste water lagoon is increasing due to lack of electricity to operate it and could collapse releasing millions of cubic metres of waste water into surrounding areas threatening lives and property. So far appeals for materials to repair damaged infrastructure and coordination for technicians to access the area have been denied by the Israeli authorities.

Whilst armed Palestinian factions have breached international humanitarian law by launching rockets into civilian areas inside Israel, the indiscriminate and excessive use of force employed by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip violates international humanitarian law. As an occupying power in Gaza, maintaining effective control of Gaza's territory, Israel remains responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and is obliged to uphold international human rights law and the Fourth Geneva Convention in the Gaza Strip. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (I-IV) states that “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities… shall in all circumstances be treated humanely”. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions makes clear that “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works”.[1] Indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and civilian property and infrastructure are therefore strictly prohibited. However, Israel has directly targeted water and sanitation infrastructure and the CMWU reports that all basic water and sanitation infrastructure has been destroyed in areas that were subject to Israeli military attack. This includes a direct hit on the Gaza City Waste Water Treatment Plant on 10 January. On 18 January a water well was destroyed in the Abu Ghazala area of Beit Hanoun causing the death of a one and a half year old child whose family's house was located near to the well.

Article 48 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions makes clear that; "the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives." Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and technicians carrying out their duties in relation to water and waste-water services cannot be seen to conform to this requirement. Both Israel and armed Palestinian groups are obliged to stop such unlawful attacks immediately and risk being held accountable for war crimes.

As an occupying power, under international humanitarian and human rights law, Israel is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and must ensure that Palestinians are provided with or allowed to secure the basics for survival including food, water, medical supplies and shelter. Prisoners of war and/or protected persons are guaranteed access to drinking water, water for personal hygiene and sanitation under the Geneva Conventions.[2] The fourth Geneva Convention, relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) states that an occupying power is responsible for maintaining public health and hygiene in an occupied territory which necessitates the provision of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.[3] It further states “If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all the means at its disposal”.[4] Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights treaty ratified by the State of Israel, all people are guaranteed the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health which includes the right to safe and sufficient water and affordable and accessible water and sanitation services and facilities.

Rather than fulfilling its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, Israeli attacks have reduced access to water and sanitation and Israel has taken no steps to remedy such access. Denying the civilian population the means necessary for their survival in this manner or hindering the provision of humanitarian aid, is a war crime and is recognized as such by The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998).[5] It makes clear that “For the purpose of this Statute, “war crimes” means … Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions”.[6]

COHRE calls upon:

· The international community to ensure that Security Council Resolution 1860 is immediately implemented which calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and the unimpeded provision and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance.

· High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions should immediately convene to ensure Israel's compliance with the Geneva Conventions (Article 1) and hold perpetrators responsible for grave breaches to account (Article 146).

· All States should impose targeted economic sanctions upon Israel to the extent consistent with international human rights law. Such sanctions should apply, in particular, on exports from Israel into their countries and their own export of military arms and equipment to Israel.

· The European Union and member states should immediately suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement and all economic ties with Israel in line with the European Union Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with International Humanitarian Law (2005) which calls for the imposition of sanctions and other restrictive measures to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law and bring perpetrators of violations to justice before domestic courts or an international criminal tribunal such as the International Criminal Court.

· MERCOSUR should suspend its free-trade agreement with Israel.

· Egypt should immediately lift all restrictions on the flow of civilian imports and exports into and from Gaza. The Arab League should urge Egypt to do so.

For more information please contact:

Lara El-Jazairi, Legal Officer, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions: lara@cohre.org. Tel: +44 (0)7961908714.

A previous COHRE report Hostage to Politics: The impact of sanctions and the blockade on the human right to water and sanitation in Gaza (June 2008) is available for download at: www.cohre.org/opt

Established in 1992, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) is an independent, international, non-governmental human rights organization committed to ensuring the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights for everyone, everywhere, with a particular focus on the human right to adequate housing and adequate public services for all. COHRE is registered as a not-for-profit foundation in the Netherlands. COHRE has an international secretariat based in Geneva, and regional offices for Africa, North America, South America and Asia/Pacific. COHRE's Right to Water Programme has been working on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory since 2007.

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