By Thomas L. Friedman
May 22, 2018
Princess Diana once famously observed that there were three people in her marriage, “so it was a bit crowded.” The same is true of Israelis and Palestinians. The third person in their marriage is Mother Nature — and she’ll batter both of them if they do not come to their senses.
Let’s start with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that rules the Gaza Strip. If there were an anti-Nobel Peace Prize — that is, the Nobel Prize for Cynicism and Reckless Disregard for One’s Own People in Pursuit of a Political Fantasy — it would surely be conferred on Hamas, which just facilitated the tragic and wasted deaths of roughly 60 Gazans by encouraging their march, some with arms, on the Israeli border fence in pursuit of a “return” to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel.
While the march idea emerged from Palestinian society in Gaza, Hamas seized on it to disguise its utter failure to produce any kind of decent life for the Palestinians there, whom Hamas has ruled since 2007.
You hear people say: “What choice did they have? They’re desperate.” Well, I’ll give you a choice — one that almost certainly would lead to an improved life for Gazans, one that I first proposed in 2011.
What if all two million Palestinians of Gaza marched to the Israeli border fence with an olive branch in one hand and a sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the other, saying, “Two states for two peoples: We, the Palestinian people of Gaza, want to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish people — a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed adjustments.”
That would have stimulated a huge debate within Israel and worldwide pressure — especially if Hamas invited youth delegations from around the Arab world to launch their own marches, carrying the Arab Peace Initiative. That kind of Palestinian movement would make Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure, which is the key to moving the Israeli silent majority.
Hamas chose instead to make Israelis feel strategically insecure and therefore morally secure in killing scores of Hamas followers who tried to breach the border fence.
Gaza is built on the exact same sand as Jaffa/Tel Aviv, where many Gazan families originally came from. Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005. If Hamas had chosen to recognize Israel and build a Palestinian state in Gaza modelled on Singapore, the world would have showered it with aid and it would have served as a positive test case for the West Bank. Hamas chose otherwise.
I appreciate the Gazans’ sense of injustice. Why should they pay with their ancestral homes for Jewish refugees who lost theirs in Germany or Iraq? The only answer is that history is full of such injustices and of refugees who have reconciled with them and moved on — not passed on their refugee status to their kids and their kids’ kids. It’s why so few Arabs, so few Europeans, so few anybody, rose to Hamas’s defence. People are fed up with it.
O.K. So much for the “bad” Palestinian leadership. What’s Israel’s approach to the secular, more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whose security forces have cooperated with Israel for years to vastly reduce violence coming from the occupied territories? Answer: nothing.
Actually, worse than nothing, because Bibi Netanyahu’s government has steadily implanted more settlers deep inside Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank — now 100,000 — beyond the settlement blocs that Israel might keep in any two-state peace deal. It makes separating Israelis and Palestinians increasingly impossible and therefore an apartheid like situation increasingly likely.
So, yes, I get why Israel has no choice but to defend its border with Gaza with brute force. But I find it a travesty that a country with so much imagination in computing, medicine and agriculture shows so little imagination in searching for secure ways to separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank to preserve its Jewish democracy.
It’s because Netanyahu, like Hamas, also wants it all. And with President Trump and the U.S. Congress writing him blank checks, Bibi thinks he can have it all. So why bother making any concessions for peace?
This is where that third person in the marriage comes in: Mother Nature — i.e., demographics and ecosystem destruction. She doesn’t recognize lines on maps, either.
In March Reuters reported from Jerusalem: “The number of Jews and Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River is at or near parity, figures cited by Israeli officials show, raising questions whether Israel can remain a democracy if it keeps territory where Palestinians seek a state.”
There are now about 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 2 million in Gaza and 1.84 million Israeli Arabs, for a total of about 6.5 million. That is roughly the same as the number of Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. If current birth-rate trends continue, the Jews will likely become a minority, with all of the negative governing consequences that will entail.
The Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, narrowly won his last election in 2013 with a total of about 111,000 votes. Most Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem boycott the city’s elections, but some 180,000 of these East Jerusalem Palestinians have been granted Israeli residency, pay taxes and are entitled to vote in municipal elections, and one day soon they will, and they will choose the next mayor. That will be the moment that drives home the new demographic reality.
And then there’s this: Repeated Hamas rocket attacks that led to an Israeli blockade of building supplies, electricity shortages due to intra-Palestinian feuding, and Hamas’s regular use of building materials to dig tunnels to penetrate Israel have led to a critical shortage of infrastructure in Gaza, particularly sewage treatment plants. So Gazans now dump about 100 million litres of raw sewage into the Mediterranean daily, explained Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, which promotes peace through environmental collaboration.
Because of the prevailing current, most of that sewage flows northward to the Israeli beach town of Ashkelon, the site of Israel’s second-biggest desalination plant. Eighty percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination, with 15 percent of the nation’s drinking water coming from the Ashkelon plant. But now Gaza’s waste is floating into Ashkelon’s desalination plant, and the plant has had to close several times to clean Gaza’s gunk out of its filters.
“So this idea that we can just get out of Gaza, throw away the key and forget about it is a total illusion,” said Bromberg.
Moreover, the renewable extraction rate for Gaza’s underground aquifer is about 60 million cubic meters of rain water annually, noted Bromberg, but Gazans have been drawing about 200 million cubic meters a year for over a decade, “so the aquifer has gotten drained and seawater has seeped into it, and many people are now drinking water that is both salty and polluted with sewage.”
Gazans now spend 20 to 30 percent of their income trying to buy clean water, he said.
In a few years, the next protest from Gaza will not be organized by Hamas, but by mothers because typhoid and cholera will have spread through the fetid water and Gazans will all have had to stop drinking it. “Then you could see two million coming to the border fence with Israel with empty buckets, begging for clean water,” said Bromberg. “We’re heading in that direction.”
Indeed, look at the neighbourhood. The combination of prolonged drought, rising temperatures and population growth is threatening aquifers all over the Middle East. The World Meteorological Organization registered the highest temperature ever reliably recorded anywhere in the month of April: 122.4 degrees Fahrenheit in Nawabshah, a city of 1.1 million people in southern Pakistan.
In Amman, Jordan, its population swollen by refugees from Syria, households now get only 12 to 24 hours of public utility water a week, during which time they have to fill up as many storage tanks as they can.
Bottom line: Israel has never been stronger than it is today. Hamas has never been weaker. If there were ever a time for Israel to take a few calculated risks to try to nurture a different pathway with Palestinians in the West Bank, it’s now. Unfortunately, its prime minister is too cowardly, and America is too slavishly supportive, for that to happen. Over to you, Mother Nature.