Weeks after Israel followed through with its threat to cut water supplies to Gaza, Palestinians living in the besieged territory are struggling to survive without the basic necessities. Residents of the area currently being bombarded by Israeli warplanes told Middle East Eye that obtaining water has become a “daily ordeal”, and they fear the spread of disease with a number of residents already dealing with stomach ailments and other illnesses.
Israel cut off water supply to Gaza shortly after the October 7 attack by Hamas-led Palestinian fighters on southern Israel. During the attack, around 1,400 Israelis died and more than 220 were taken captive. At least 8,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliation for the assault. Israeli authorities conditioned the resumption of water supplies on the return of the hostages, but has also attacked other means of water delivery and sewage treatment in the territory, such as desalination plants.
“Our access to water, be it for drinking or cleaning, has diminished significantly. The quest for even a modest amount of fresh water has become a daily ordeal,” said Osama al-Baz, a displaced Palestinian in Gaza. Baz’s family were forced to leave their home in northern Gaza on October 13 after Israel warned civilians living there that they were not safe.
They now live with friends in the south of the region, where they are part of a group of 20, including several elderly people and six young children. Calling Israel’s policies a form of “collective punishment”, Baz said getting “basic necessities such as water and food has become a daunting task”.
“On the few occasions when water is available, we rush with buckets and containers, hoping to salvage what we can. Every chance to obtain water feels like it could be the last. “On the rare occasions when we do obtain water, we prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, the infirm, and the children,” he said.
“There have been times when, out of sheer desperation, we consumed water that was clearly unfit for drinking for several days.” Baz explained that taking such risks with water exposed those in his group to illnesses, such as dehydration, stomach ailments and diarrhoea.
Showers have become a “luxury” for Baz’s group and there is barely enough water to clean bathrooms.
Baz’s descriptions correspond with those of other Palestinians in the area. Tens of thousands from the northern areas of Gaza have moved south to comply with the Israeli army’s orders. The south of the territory remains an active warzone with frequent Israeli attacks on the area.
Continued bombardment and consequent damage to infrastructure, coupled with the resource strain that has emerged from the mass displacement of Palestinians from northern Gaza, means there are already huge shortages that make it near impossible to carry out the basic functions of life.
Wisam, a Gaza resident, told Middle East Eye that he had initially moved from Gaza City to the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in the south to seek refuge with relatives.
“There was no water available, to the extent that going to the bathroom became a strenuous task. We had to bring water in a bucket to the bathroom, if we found any, and use the least amount possible. We force ourselves to avoid going to the bathroom as much as we can,” he said. “We bathe the children only, using the most meagre amounts of water,” Wisam added.
His family then returned to Gaza City and specifically to Al-Quds Hospital, which Israel has repeatedly demanded the evacuation of. “The scene there was nothing short of harrowing,” Wisam said.
“Clean water was a rarity, and basic sanitation seemed a distant memory. Hundreds of people were crammed into tight spaces, using communal bathrooms without adequate sanitation facilities.
“I fear that the hospital is turning into a hotspot for disease outbreaks, given the cramped conditions and dwindling supplies,” he added.
Of course, journalists working on the ground in Gaza know first-hand the difficulties of getting water. Middle East Eye contributor Mohammed al-Hajjar described how Israeli attacks on water pumps had ensured the only water coming through was that which was tainted by sea water and pollution.
Gaza’s residents had previously installed filters at these pumps so that a majority of impurities were removed for use besides drinking. “This water was okay for bathing or washing dishes, and you could use it for ablutions (wudhu), but it wasn't really drinkable,” Hajjar said.
“Now, with the filters non-operational and the pumps barely working, that dirty water is back in our homes.” The effects, Hajjar said, were immediate.
“My skin started showing inflammations, especially where I washed or performed ablutions. My children have the same reaction. It looks like mosquito bites but it isn't. Washing our hair with this water results in intense itching, especially on the scalp and hands.
“I've resorted to a moisturizing cream with an anasthetic for my children to stop them from scratching incessantly. My wife has the same issues. In fact, almost all of my family, 14 of us in total, suffer from this.”
Hajjar said his wife was showing signs of illness including “fever and a yellowish tint to her skin”. Seeking medical help though was out of the question, as hospitals and clinics are stretched to their limits trying to save victims of Israel’s bombing campaign. “We're trying to self-treat, we’re doing our best.”