Israel behind Gaza flooding?

Hundreds of Palestinians were evacuated from their homes Feb. 22 amid flooding in the Gaza Valley, or Wadi Gaza, with water rising up to three meters. Evacuated families were sent to shelters set up by UNRWA. The flooding comes in the wake of a severe winter storm, which displaced dozens and caused hardship for many more—including the some 110,000 left homeless by Israel's assault over summer. But the Hamas administration in Gaza charged that Israeli authorities unleashed the flooding by releasing storm water backed up behind dams into the coastal enclave. The Wadi Gaza is a wetland located in the central Gaza Strip between al-Nuseirat refugee camp and al-Moghraqa. It is called HaBesor in Hebrew, and it if fed by two streams—one that flows from near Beersheba, the other from near Hebron.

Israel rejected the charge. In a statement, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said Israel did not operate dams in the south. "The claim is entirely false, and southern Israel does not have any dams," the COGAT statement said. "Due to the recent rain, streams were flooded throughout the region with no connection to actions taken by the State of Israel." The statement boasted that before the storm, Israel "allowed the transfer of four water pumps belonging to the Palestinian Water Authority from Israel into Gaza to supplement the 13 pumps already in the Gaza Strip in dealing with any potential flooding throughout the area." (Ma'an, Al Jazeera, Feb. 23)

Israel's far-right Arutz Sheva gloats: "AFP Lies, Claims Israel 'Flooded Gaza' with Nonexistent Dam." It notes that AFP posted video footage in which a Gaza resident says "every four years there is a war but here in Maghraqa every year there is a flood. This water comes from Israel. This is political. All Israel wants is to destroy us." Arutz Sheva gripes that no Israeli official was contacted for a comment. AFP appears to have removed the video.

We went through a similar episode in December 2013, and we're alarmed that media reports leave it as a he-said-she-said and offer no independent corroboration on the presumably clear and objective question of whether the dams exist or not. So the question turns into a tiresome political litmus test, with who you believe determined by whether your sympathies lie with Israel or the Palestinians. The closest we've gotten to real journalism on this question was Amira Hass' report in Haaretz after the 2013 floods. She wrote then:

Nehemia Shahaf, the Israeli municipal official responsible for the drainage system in part of the northern Negev, said there was one dam in the area, a one-meter cement structure in the Tze'elim area that directs water to a reservoir in Israeli territory, but that it could not be opened or closed. Shahaf said the water level was so high that the dam couldn’t stop it from reaching Gaza.

So did this happen again? Was the flooding intentional, or was the Tze'elim dam simply overwhelmed? Could we get less gloating and more journalism here, please?

  1. Do the Wadi Gaza dams exist?

    Some sources indicate so. The study Core Issues of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Dispute by Jad Isaac states on p. 62: "Palestinians voice concern about the waters of Wadi Gaza, which are currently impounded upstream in Israel, but which used to replenish Gaza's aquifer." There is a similar reference in Water and Peace in the Middle East by J. Isaac, H. Shuval, p. 253: "Wadi Gaza which flows during the winter season, originating from thew Hebron mountains in the east and ends at the sea shore south of Gaza, has been blocked by Israel. Several dams were built all along the way preventing the water from flowing into the Gaza Strip which otherwise would have provided a valuable source of water to be used for irrigation and for compensation for the lost pumped out water [for municipal use]." Clunky grammar in original. The claims are not footnoted, and neither source says when the dams were built, or by whom, or for what ostensible purpose.