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        General Assembly
27 February 2009


Tenth session
Agenda item 7


Written statement* submitted by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a non-governmental organization in special consultative status

The Secretary-General has received the following written statement which is circulated in accordance with Economic and Social Council resolution 1996/31.

[18 February 2009]


Concerning violations of fundamental rights caused by the collapse of the water
and sanitation sector in Gaza following operation ‘Cast Lead’

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a global initiative devoted to the effective realisation by all of the fundamental human rights to housing, land, water and sanitation, wishes to note its concern at the gross violations of human rights and serious breaches of international humanitarian law that have been caused and continue to occur in the Gaza Strip due to the collapse of the water and sanitation sector following Israel’s military aggression ‘Operation Cast Lead’. The water and sanitation sector was already in a dire state following the 18 month blockade on Gaza, which had prevented the entry of material necessary for construction and repair of water and sanitation facilities as well as the fuel and electricity necessary to operate essential services such as sewage pumping stations and water wells. Israel's aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip beginning on the 27 December 2008 and the ground invasion beginning on the 3 January 2009, lasting until the 18 January 2009, have turned an already desperate humanitarian situation into a catastrophe.

According to the water authorities in Gaza, as of 9 February 2009, 50,000 people in the Gaza Strip were completely without access to water and an additional 150,000- 200,000 were dependent on an intermittent supply and receiving water once every five or six days. At the height of the crisis more than half a million residents of the Gaza Strip (a third of the population) had no access to clean water. Many were left without water for over ten days. Tankered water is currently in short supply due to a lack of water tankers and prices for water have risen to around 30-40 NIS/cubic meter (US$ 7.5 -10) unaffordable for many people.

Israeli military attacks caused extensive damage to water and sanitation infrastructure including wells, water and sewerage networks, waste water facilities and water tanks, causing an estimated $US 6 million of damage.1 Three new wells were completely destroyed in Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun which supplied more than 50,000 people with water.2 On the 9 February, an Israeli airstrike damaged a well pump house in El Attatara, this well supplied 10,000 people with drinking water. The targeting of sewerage and waste water treatment plants led to sewage flowing in the streets in a number of areas including Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia posing a severe health hazard to thousands of people. On 24 January there were severe problems with sewage according to the Coastal Municipal Water Utility (the water service provider in Gaza), which reported that waste water from the treatment plant in the Netzarim area was flooding up to one kilometer from the plant and that waste water in the Beit Lahia lagoon was increasing to the point of risking a collapse of the lagoon.3

The Israeli authorities have further prevented humanitarian agencies from being able to get in materials such as cement and spare parts, as well as technicians to carry out the necessary reconstruction work to water and waste water facilities, and provide necessary aid to the population, following the end of hostilities. This has resulted in prolonging the suffering of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.

Whilst armed Palestinian factions have breached international humanitarian law by launching rockets into civilian areas inside Israel, the indiscriminate, excessive and disproportionate use of force employed by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip violates international humanitarian law. As an occupying power in Gaza, maintaining effective control of Gaza’s territory, Israel remains responsible for the welfare of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and is obliged to uphold international human rights law as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (I-IV) states that “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities… shall in all circumstances be treated humanely”. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions makes clear that “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works”.4 Indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and civilian property and infrastructure are therefore strictly prohibited. However, Israel has directly targeted water and sanitation infrastructure and the CMWU reports that all basic water and sanitation infrastructure has been destroyed in areas that were subject to Israeli military attack. This includes a direct hit on the Gaza City Waste Water Treatment Plant on 10 January. On 18 January a water well was destroyed in the Abu Ghazala area of Beit Hanoun causing the death of a one and a half year old child whose family’s house was located near to the well. Three staff members from the Palestinian Water Authority were killed during the course of Israel's military assault on Gaza, two working in the waste water sector and one who was working at a water well at the time.

Article 48 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions makes clear that; “the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their Article 48 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions makes clear that; “the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.” Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and technicians carrying out their duties in relation to water and waste-water services cannot be seen to conform to this requirement.

As an occupying power, under international humanitarian and human rights law, Israel is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and must ensure that Palestinians are provided with or allowed to secure the basics for survival including food, water, medical supplies and shelter. Prisoners of war and/or protected persons are guaranteed access to drinking water, water for personal hygiene and sanitation under the Geneva Conventions.5 The fourth Geneva Convention, relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) states that an occupying power is responsible for maintaining public health and hygiene in an occupied territory which necessitates the provision of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.6 It further states “If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all the means at its disposal”.7 Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights treaty ratified by the State of Israel, all people are guaranteed the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health which includes the right to safe and sufficient water and affordable and accessible water and sanitation services and facilities.

Rather than fulfilling its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, Israeli attacks substantially reduced access to water and sanitation and Israel has taken no steps to remedy such access. Denying the civilian population the means necessary for their survival in this manner or hindering the provision of humanitarian aid, is a war crime and is recognized as such by The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). It makes clear that “For the purpose of this Statute, “war crimes” means … Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions”.8

COHRE urges the government of Israel to immediately lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and allow the free flow of essential goods, equipment and aid workers into Gaza. COHRE calls upon the Member States of the Human Rights Council to ensure that criminal investigations are carried out, and where necessary prosecutions, against those that have committed gross violations of international human rights law and serious breaches of international humanitarian law, in order to ensure accountability, uphold the rule of law and provide reparation to victims of violations.


1 Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, Damage Assessment Report: Water and Waste Water Infrastructure and Facilities,( January 2009), p. 5.
2 Ibid.
3 EWASH Report, Gaza Emergency WASH Cluster weekly situation report no. 1 (8 February 2009).
4 Article 54. Emphasis added.
5 Third Geneva Convention, Articles 20, 26, 29, 46. Fourth Geneva Convention Articles 56, 85, 89, 127.
6 Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 56.
7 Fourth Geneva Convention Article 59.
8 Article 8 (2).

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