Furious Smotrich urges Netanyahu: 'Stop this folly'

Israel boosts power to Gaza desalination plant in bid to avert humanitarian crisis

Security officials say electric work critical for Israeli campaign against Hamas; vast majority of Gaza population now in humanitarian zone, where facility’s water will be sent

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Palestinians conduct electric works in the Gaza Strip to increase power to a water desalination plant in coordination with Israel, July 2, 2024 (Screenshot: X)
Palestinians conduct electric works in the Gaza Strip to increase power to a water desalination plant in coordination with Israel, July 2, 2024 (Screenshot: X)

Work began on Tuesday, under Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, to boost electric power to a desalination plant in the Gaza Strip to allow it to produce more water for civilians in a designated “humanitarian zone” where the vast majority of the Gazan population is residing.

Security officials said the work was critical for Israel to continue its operations against Hamas in Gaza. In an internal document, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called the work to boost water in the Strip “a basic humanitarian need.”

Gallant was personally involved in pushing forward the desalination plant project, part of wider plans by Israel to prioritize humanitarian issues in Gaza and a policy to differentiate between Palestinian civilians and Hamas, a defense source told The Times of Israel. Israel wishes to avoid a major humanitarian crisis that would harm the country’s legitimacy to continue its operations in the Strip.

Still, the fact that Israel was enabling reconstruction work in Gaza angered some ministers in the government.

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a post on social media site X, “We’ve lost it completely. We are rebuilding Gaza ourselves, before it has been demilitarized… Mr. Prime Minister, stop this folly.”

An Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza in response to the terror group massacring some 1,200 Israelis and taking 251 hostages on October 7 has left millions in Gaza with insufficient food, scarce water, and failing sanitation, Western aid agencies have said.

Some 1.9 million Palestinians of the 2.3 million Gazan population are currently in the Israeli-designated humanitarian zone — located in the al-Mawasi area on the Strip’s coast, in western neighborhoods of Khan Younis, and in central Gaza’s Deir al-Balah — according to fresh IDF estimates on Tuesday.

Officials said the large desalination plant would be able to provide 20,000 cubic meters of water daily to the humanitarian zone, once hooked up to Israeli power.

Today the facility provides only some 1,500 cubic meters due to the lack of electricity. Current power is coming from generators and solar.

Gaza depends on Israel for much of its electricity supply. That power has largely been cut since the fighting started after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

The desalination facility was established with United Nations funding in 2017 to provide drinking water to areas in Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis, and the Mawasi, where the humanitarian zone is currently located, along with the vast majority of the Palestinian population.

Increased drinking water is especially necessary during the summer, and the humanitarian zone also requires water for sanitation to prevent diseases from spreading. Such diseases could also harm Israeli soldiers in Gaza, as well as hostages held by Hamas, the officials said.

Palestinians gather to fill water jugs near one of the strip’s few functioning desalination plants in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Officials said that preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza was key to continuing the fighting against the Hamas terror group; otherwise, the country could potentially be forced to end the war due to international pressure or orders by the International Court of Justice.

A defense source said the desalination plant would be a “game changer” in Israel’s efforts to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, paired with increased aid entering the Strip in recent months, as well as efforts to have better coordination with international humanitarian organizations.

Gallant during his recent visit to Washington, DC, met with members of humanitarian organizations and UN officials dealing with such matters, the source said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with IDF troops in southern Gaza’s Rafah, June 30, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The move to provide power to the desalination plant was approved by government officials, including the defense minister and energy minister.

The facility was to be run by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Water Authority, which is not affiliated with Hamas, along with international humanitarian organizations. Officials said that the plant would be immediately disconnected if the military identified Hamas siphoning off electricity for other purposes.

In addition to the 1.9 million Palestinians residing in the humanitarian zone, according to the IDF estimates, a few hundred thousand Palestinians remain in northern Gaza, and some 20,000 Palestinians remain in the Rafah area.

Around 1.4 million Palestinians had been sheltering in Rafah until the IDF launched its offensive there in May, ordering the civilians to move to the humanitarian zone.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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