Can Biden's Visit to Israel Prevent the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza From Getting Even Worse?
Water supplies in Gaza are running low as Biden travels to Israel and Jordan
President Biden is en route to Israel to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu and demonstrate America’s commitment to Israeli security. This is surely welcome in Israel as a show of support after last week’s devastating terrorist attack. But the fact is, American commitment to Israeli security was never in question. Biden has a long track record of support for Israel. In just a few days, the US has mobilized arms shipments and sent two U.S. Navy carrier groups to the region in a show of force, clearly intended to deter any potential provocations from Iran.
Rather, if there is to be any meaningful outcome from Biden’s visit it will be whether or not he is able to prevail upon Netanyahu — and Egyptian President Sisi — to quell the humanitarian crisis currently imposed on some 2 million Gazans.
Time is running out for Gazans. Fuel and water reserves are running dangerously low, threatening to plunge Gaza into an epic humanitarian catastrophe. If current trends continue much longer, dehydration and dysentery will kill far, far more Gazans than Israeli bombs.
The reports from the United Nations about the crisis in Gaza are growing increasingly dire. For eight consecutive days, Gaza has been under a blackout. “Hospitals are on the brink of collapse as their fuel reserves used to operate backup generators have been almost totally depleted, endangering the lives of thousands of patients,” warned the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Monday’s bulletin.
Water supplies are also running low. Desalinization plants that supply water for much of Gaza are offline, many because they lack fuel to operate. “As of 12 October, at least six water wells, three water pumping stations, one water reservoir, and one desalination plant serving over 1,100,000 people were damaged,” says OCHA. Meanwhile, most pipes from Israel have been turned off, with the exception of one water pipe in the south of Gaza that was partially opened. “People across Gaza have severely limited access to clean drinking water. As a last resort, people are consuming brackish water from agricultural wells, triggering serious concerns over the spread of waterborne diseases,” says OCHA
Gaza is simply running out of water. And as water goes, so too does sanitation. Sewage is being dumped into the sea and is now threatening to flood populated areas. From UNICEF: “On 15 October, Gaza’s only remaining operational wastewater treatment plant (out of five), which relies on solar energy, was forced to shut down. Consequently, additional amounts of untreated sewage have been discharged to the sea. Most of the 65 sewage pumping stations are not operational, increasing the risk of sewage flooding. In some areas, sewage and solid waste have been accumulating in the streets, posing health and environmental hazards.”
The combination of a dense population stuck in a war zone without access to water or sanitation is a recipe for a humanitarian catastrophe the likes of which the region has not experienced since the heights of the Syrian civil war. Cholera, which can quickly kill children, is of particular concern.
Can Diplomacy Open Up Humanitarian Corridors?
Gazans are currently trapped. Israel is not permitting humanitarian access to Gaza and the border between Gaza and Egypt remains closed. If humanitarian aid is to reach Gaza, it would be via the Egyptian-Gaza border station, known as the Rafa Crossing. And if Gazans are allowed to flee to Egypt as refugees it would be through this same border crossing. Right now, aid is piling up on the Egyptian side of the border, and humans are massing on the Gazan side of the border. But aid is not coming in, neither are Gazans being permitted to leave.
Un-jamming this situation is the work of diplomacy. The top UN Humanitarian Official Martin Griffiths arrived in Cairo today for negotiations with the Egyptian government. Antony Blinken is also in the region, and reportedly held a nine hour meeting with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials yesterday on getting aid into Gaza. There were no concrete outcome from those meetings.
Biden, presumably, will directly press Netanyahu on permitting humanitarian access to Gaza — apparently arguing that it will be difficult to maintain international support for Israel if Gazans are seen to be dying en masse from starvation and dehydration. Later in the day, Biden will meet with Egyptian president Sisi, a second crucial meeting that may determine the fate of over one million Gazans.
To be sure, there are many, many medium and long term issues that must be addressed to bring this current crisis to a resolution, not least of which is the fate of nearly two hundred Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. Still, there is a particular urgency to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. If Biden is able to secure some sort of humanitarian access to Gazans caught in the conflict, it would be a literal lifeline to over a million people. But that outcome is not assured— and time is running short.