Johann Hari’s Mud-Slinging

On the occasion of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, Independent journalist Johann Hari is unable to bring himself to write anything positive about the Jewish state. Instead, he levels gross (meaning egregious and disgusting) falsehoods about water and sewage in the West Bank. He writes:

I can’t do it. Whenever I try to mouth [positive] words, a remembered smell fills my nostrils. It is the smell of shit. Across the occupied West Bank, raw untreated sewage is pumped every day out of the Jewish settlements, along large metal pipes, straight onto Palestinian land. From there, it can enter the groundwater and the reservoirs and become a poison. (“Israel is suppressing a secret it must face,” April 28, 2008)

Thus, invoking the modern-day version of the medieval libel about Jews poisoning the wells, he continues:

Standing near one of these long, stinking brown-and-yellow rivers of waste recently, the local chief medical officer, Dr. Bassam Said Nadi, explained to me: “Recently, there were very heavy rains, and the shit started to flow in the reservoir that provides water to the whole area. I knew that if we didn’t act, people would die. We had to alert everyone not to drink the water for over a week, and distribute bottles. We were lucky it was spotted. Next time. . . ” He shook his head in fear. This is no freak: a 2004 report by Friends of the Earth found that only six percent of Israeli settlements adequately treat their sewage.

There is just one problem with Hari’s story – the “stinking brown-and-yellow river of waste” he and Dr. Nadi observed is most probably Palestinian waste, not Israeli waste. Dr. Nadi, also known as Dr. Bassam Abu Madi (variations in English spellings of Arabic names are common), is chief medical officer at Salfit Hospital in the northern West Bank. According to Friends of the Earth (FoEME), the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian organization which Hari cites, it is untreated sewage originating from the Palestinian village of Salfit which is polluting the area.

An April 2006 FoEME briefing paper states:

Salfit wastewater, originating from 10,000 people, currently pollutes the Shilo Stream. Wastewater in this stream enters the groundwater of the Mountain Aquifer, and what is left reaches Israel, eventually polluting the Yarkon Stream.

Thus, not only is the untreated Palestinian waste polluting Palestinian areas, but it is also damaging water sources across the Green Line within Israel.

And this is the case throughout much of the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. While both Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank are polluting the Mountain Aquifer, a 2005 “Friends of the Earth” report (an update on the 2004 document that Hari mentions), states that the Palestinian Authority is the single most polluting party in the West Bank:

Sewage from most Palestinian cities and villages receives no treatment at all. The sewage of many Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not treated adequately or even at all. . .

Israel Treats Palestinian Sewage

“Friends of the Earth” point out that “The treatment of Palestinian sewage is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian municipalities” (2005). Despite the fact that the treatment of Palestinian sewage is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, Israel treats Palestinian sewage in several localities. Thus, according to Friends of the Earth (2006), “Nablus West and Tul Karem wastewater are currently treated in an Israeli facility in Yad Hana (Emek Hefer).”

“Every day, Tul Karm [sic] sends up to 4,000 cubic meters of sewage under the separation barrier and into the [Yad Hana] plant; between 6,000 and 10,000 more comes from Nablus,” reported the Jerusalem Report (May 15, 2006). Likewise, Qalqilya’s wastewater is treated in the Israeli facility in Nir Eliyahu.

As for Salfit, Palestinians turned down an Israeli offer to treat its sewage. As the Jerusalem Report stated:

When Israel constructed a sewage line down the Kana River in the northern West Bank several years ago to take waste from settlements like Kedumim into Israel proper, the Civil Administration offered Palestinian villages in the area the option of hooking up to the pipeline. The Palestinians refused, because they thought this would be tantamount to recognizing the legitimacy of the settlements. The same thing happened with a proposed sewage treatment plant for waste coming from the settlement city of Ariel and from the nearby Palestinian town of Salfit: The Palestinians would not take part in a project that required cooperation with Israeli settlements. As a result, the Palestinian towns continue to pour their sewage into rivers and cesspools.

Pollution From Israeli Settlements

Hari cites the “Friends of the Earth” 2004 figure that only six percent of sewage from Israeli settlements is treated properly. The implication is that the other 94 percent is not treated properly, while the report actually states that 48 percent receives inadequate treatment. The rest is “currently in implementation,” “unclear,” or no data is available. According to the Israeli Water Commission, in 2004, 70 percent of the settlements’ sewage was treated properly.

The 2005 update points to improvement in treatment of Israeli settlement waste, but does not provide precise figures as it did in 2004. About Ariel, which neighbors Salfit, it writes:

The Israeli Environment Ministry opened a criminal investigation against the Mayor of Ariel settlement, on account of sewage mismanagement. Consequently, a schedule of implementation has been reached for the Ariel sewage treatment project (Israeli funding), and the old sewage facility has been rehabilitated.

Illegal Palestinian Drilling – A Source of Pollution

According to Professor Haim Gvirtzman, the senior hydrologist in the earth studies department at Hebrew University, illegal Palestinian drilling is causing serious harm to the Mountain Aquifer. He cautiously estimates that there are currently 250 illegal wells in Palestinian areas, in violation of bilateral agreements with Israel and which endanger th e water quality of springs. Gvirtzman told Makor Rishon newspaper that “in Oslo II there are sanctions that Israel can apply in the event that the Palestinians violate the relevant agreements, but the government never applied these sanctions” (March 28, 2008, translation by CAMERA).

Israel Pumps Water to the Palestinians

Indeed, rather than exercising its right to sanction the Palestinian Authority for its water violations, Israel continues to provide the Palestinians with water in an amount exceeding its obligations under the Oslo Accords, pumping 40 million cubic meters of water annually from Israel to the Palestinians.

Gaza Sewage Crisis

Ignoring Palestinian sources that point to Palestinian culpability, Hari goes on to implicate Israel is Gaza’s sewage crises. He writes:

Meanwhile, in order to punish the population for voting “the wrong way”, the Israeli army are not allowing past the checkpoints any replacements for the pipes and cement needed to keep the sewage system working. The result? Vast stagnant pools of waste are being held within fragile dykes across the strip, and rotting. Last March, one of them burst, drowning a nine-month-old baby and his grandmother in a tsunami of human waste. The Centre on Housing Rights warns that one heavy rainfall could send 1.5m cubic meters of faeces flowing all over Gaza, causing “a humanitarian and environmental disaster of epic proportions.”

Yet, years before Hamas was voted in, Gaza health officials were warning that Palestinian sand thieves were endangering the sewage system and risking a crisis. As the independent Palestinian Jerusalem Times wrote on June 18, 2004:

The Municipality of Gaza recently warned local, international and environmental media from the expected collapse [sic] and destruction of one of the strategic serviceable establishments in Gaza. The collapsing of the sewage treatment water tank will convert Gaza province into a catastrophic area that will affect the Palestinians’ health and environment.

The municipality’s representatives said that some vandals were able to remove (steal) the sand surrounding these huge establishments for commercial use . . . .

[Palestinian general manager in Gaza municipality Mohammed Akram] Halas said that this huge sewage waste water tank is considered as a national priority and called on the local Palestinians to stop from removing and transferring the sand surrounding the tanks, in which these sand retaining walls were erected to protect the reservoirs from possible collapsing of the tanks to reduce possible risks on the Palestinians . . . .

The Palestinian general manger of the water and sewage waste water department in the Gaza municipality, Engineer Hazem Tarazi, mentioned that the tank is considered a vital part for using the waste water and treating it. . . . (“Vandals Undermine Sewage Operation”)

More recently, a Gaza mayor blamed the March 2007 Um Al Nasser sewage disaster on sand thiefs. As the Age (Australia) reported:

Gaza City Mayor Majid Abu Ramadan, who leads a council of Gaza municipalities, blamed the collapse on endemic lawlessness.

He accused local residents of stealing the dirt and selling it to building companies for 300 shekels ($A86.60) a truckload. (March 28, 2007)

None of this factual information underscoring the role of the Palestinians themselves in failing to address water and sewage issues interests Johann Hari whose prejudicial assaults on Israel have been characterized in other Independent commentary as well by extreme rhetoric and false charges. Moreover, given the newspaper’s record in refusing to correct any of Hari’s errors, readers should simply assume there is little or no factual merit in anything carried by the publication.

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