Inside story

How Israel worked to renew Gaza’s water supply amid the war, with help from locals

Despite ministers’ early bravado and international accusations, Jerusalem went to great lengths to fix enclave’s ‘screwed-up’ infrastructure after October 7 damage, say officials

This undated photo shows Palestinian Water Authority workers repairing the Gazan side of a pipeline leading water from Israel during the country's war with Hamas. (Courtesy)
This undated photo shows Palestinian Water Authority workers repairing the Gazan side of a pipeline leading water from Israel during the country's war with Hamas. (Courtesy)

From the moment war broke out in the Gaza Strip last October, it was clear that water supply to the Palestinian population was a particularly sensitive issue.

Even before October 7, the Gaza water network was in a fragile state, and the population suffered from chronic shortages of potable water. Under fire, what little supply Gazans had was in danger of collapse.

After Hamas launched its deadly onslaught, various Israeli ministers declared that all transfer of resources from Israel, including electricity, water and goods, would cease. But Israel eventually backtracked amid intense international pressure and the growing suffering of civilians in the Strip.

It now emerges that direct contacts and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian elements in Gaza took place early in the war to ensure the renewal of water supply from Israel to Gaza.

This cooperation between Israeli and Gaza professionals under fire demonstrates the disparity between the inflammatory statements of government ministers and the complex reality on the ground.

This incongruity is one of the reasons the Israeli authorities involved in the effort – the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Water Authority and Mekorot, Israel’s water company – prefer not to comment on the issue.

In recent years, Israel has pumped water into the Gaza Strip using three pipes: a northern one near Kibbutz Nahal Oz; a southern one called Bani Suheila, near Khan Younis; and a third, called the Sayid Basin, in between the other two. The total flow amounted to about 20 million cubic meters per year, with the payment being deducted from the Palestinian Authority’s tax money that Israel collects.

Much of the rest of Gaza’s water flowed from small desalination facilities established in the Strip. Another source was wells, which have seen a decline in water level and have been penetrated by seawater, leading them to become progressively saltier.

The northern pumping facility, near Nahal Oz, was rendered inoperative after being damaged in the October 7 attack, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people and take 251 hostages.

Palestinian Water Authority workers repair the Gazan side of a pipeline leading water from Israel during the country’s war with Hamas. (courtesy)

The desalination facilities in the Gaza Strip ceased to operate almost immediately because of a shortage of diesel and electricity. Israel Katz, then the energy minister, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, were quick to declare that Gazans could forget about water.

On October 9, the third day of the war, Gallant released a video saying, “From now on, the residents of Gaza shall have no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel.”

That same day, Katz tweeted: “I ordered the immediate cessation of water supply from Israel to Gaza. Things will no longer be the same.” Even then, it was clear that such bombastic statements might one day be used as evidence against Israel in The Hague.

While the northern pipeline has, by all accounts, been shut down, there is some disagreement as to the fate of the central and southern pipelines.

According to one version, those pipelines, too, were rendered inoperative during the first days of fighting, due to shelling or the passage of tanks and other heavy military vehicles.

According to another version, the IDF cut off the water supply to Gaza by order of the defense minister.

“What happened in the first few days was a political and media battle over whether or not to shut down their pipelines,” a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael.

“This struggle, which included much tweeting before the pipes were actually shut down, put human lives at risk,” the source said, “because these are infrastructures that have been sitting in the same spot for the past 20 years, and it’s no secret where they are.”

Palestinian Water Authority workers repair the Gazan side of a pipeline leading water from Israel during the country’s war with Hamas. (courtesy)

“As soon as you say you’re going to send a team to close these pipes, [Hamas] will start to shell that point,” the source continued. “All this bravado just delayed what [Israel] wanted to do. It was ultimately too dangerous to send Mekorot people there, and the IDF ended up carrying it out.”

Either way, it soon became clear that the water shortage in the Gaza Strip would come back to haunt Israel and greatly harm the country in the international and legal arenas. Without admitting it publicly, Israeli officials began looking for a way to renew the flow of water into the Strip.

However, due to the infrastructure’s condition, this was no easy task.

The pipes on the Israeli side were easier to handle: Mekorot workers were sent under heavy security to repair the pipeline in the southern sector. In a video recorded by one of the workers, loud shots were heard near the worksite.

Israeli officials, incidentally, asserted that the repairs’ primary goal was to allow water to flow to IDF forces entering the Gaza Strip. As a byproduct, the repairs made it possible to once again supply water to the Palestinians.

Even when the repairs on the Israeli side of the fence were complete, the task was far from over. “If the pipeline is faulty on the other side, then the water will spill out onto the sand,” said a source in the water sector. It turned out that the pipeline on the Palestinian side was in dire condition; making it usable would require a comprehensive restoration.

Of course, the repairs could not be done by Mekorot, which operates only within Israel. This made it necessary to find Palestinians to fix the pipelines. Senior Israeli officials, some of them retired, were recruited to help make contact and find workers.

A few days after the start of the war, Giora Shaham, the former chairman of the Water Authority, was contacted by a senior reserves officer in COGAT. During his tenure, Shaham had maintained extensive ties with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Water Authority, as part of the Joint Water Committee put in place by the 1990s’ Oslo Accords.

File – Giora Shaham, then-head of Israel’s Water Authority, speaks at a ceremony marking the start of works to restore the Jerusalem-area Kidron river, June 23, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube/Jerusalem News, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“It was clear to me that the flow must be renewed to give the IDF military freedom of action and [give] Israel international leeway,” Shaham said. “After all, it’s impossible to leave millions of people without any water.”

Israel “was searching for a solution for how to deal with the pipeline on the Palestinian side, and for elements on the other side with whom to manage” the renovation, said Shaham.

Fixing, and helping

The water system in the Gaza Strip — like everything there — is multipronged.

“The ones who run the water system at the national level are the Water Authority, whose base is in Ramallah, and which receives salaries from the Palestinian Authority,” said Shaham. “After the water enters the Gaza Strip, it is divided among the municipalities, such as Gaza, Beit Lahiya, etc., which are Hamas-run authorities. Hamas then sells the water to the populace at an exorbitant rate, and cuts itself a fat check.”

To repair the pipelines, it was necessary to locate elements inside the Strip that could send workers.

This undated photo shows Palestinian Water Authority workers repairing the Gazan side of a pipeline leading water from Israel during the country’s war with Hamas. (Courtesy)

“I spoke with an engineer who lives in Jabaliya,” Shaham recalled, “a nice man whose name is better left unpublished. I asked him why he didn’t move south [as Israel had instructed the civilian population to do at the start of the war]. He said he had nowhere to go and he stayed.  We spoke several times during the war.

“COGAT led a major coordination effort, and in the end Palestinian workers were sent to the places where the pipes were damaged near the fence, and repaired them under heavy IDF security.”

He explained that this was “so that our forces wouldn’t shoot them by accident.”

“These were Palestinians who were using heavy machinery and welding tools near the fence. They could easily have been mistaken for [Hamas operatives].”

The IDF troops “formed a ring around them to make it clear that this was a partner, not an enemy,” Shaham said.

“I don’t want to defend this government or everything Israel does in Gaza,” he continued, “but after hearing the prosecutor in The Hague talk about deliberate water deprivation, it’s important for me to say that the Israeli side made great efforts to replenish the water supply to the Gaza Strip, by repairing the pipeline on our side and by helping the Palestinians fix [the pipeline on] their side.”

Illustrative: A displaced Palestinian girl uses a cart to transport water in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, May 24, 2024. (Eyad Baba / AFP)

Finally, the welding stuck

According to a source in the Israeli water market, the process of repairing the pipes on the Palestinian side was Sisyphean and tedious. “Gaza has some of the world’s most screwed-up water facilities,” said the source.

“Even before the war, the water loss rate in the southern Gaza Strip was between 70% and 90%, meaning you put a liter [quarter gallon] in at one end and got half a cup on the other,” he said.

“When they tried to renew the flow from the Israeli side, every time they activated the stream the pipes on the other side blew up from the pressure.  There were lots of attempts to fix it, and every time they did some dime store welding, it wouldn’t hold for even an hour.

“After turning it on and off maybe two hundred times, it somehow worked in the end,” said the source. “I don’t know how the miracle happened that the welding on the other side ultimately stuck.”

An Emirati-sponsored water desalination plant on the Egyptian side of the Gaza Strip’s southern border, near Rafah. (Courtesy)

Even after the flow was renewed in the pipelines from Israel, the Gaza Strip continues to face a severe water shortage. As the fighting progressed, most of the problem became concentrated in the Rafah area, where more than a million Palestinians had flocked after being displaced.

The United Arab Emirates helped there to a degree, by underwriting the construction of a small desalination plant on the Egyptian side of Gaza’s southern border, near Rafah.

It is unclear if this facility is still operational and supplying water even after the IDF entered Rafah last month.

This article was translated from the original on Zman Yisrael, Times of Israel’s Hebrew site.

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