A look at two sides of life in the Gaza Strip right now
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
We're going to take a look now at two sides of life in the Gaza Strip. It's been just a week since a brief, but deadly, battle between Israel and Gaza militants that Palestinians say killed at least 49 people in Gaza. These conflicts have become a grim fact of life for people there, and we'll hear how they're recovering. Then, we'll look at one thing that has improved after years of effort, giving people in Gaza some daily relief. But first, we'll start with NPR's Fatma Tanis in Gaza City. Hi, Fatma.
FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.
ESTRIN: So we've seen this pattern over the last 15 years - deadly Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, Palestinians firing rockets. What stands out about the three-day conflict that took place last weekend?
TANIS: So this was a relatively confined battle between Israel and the small militant group Islamic Jihad while Hamas, the bigger group that controls Gaza, stayed out of it, and Israel did not appear to be targeting them. Now, Israeli officials say this is a military success for them. It began the fighting with attacks on Islamic Jihad militants that they say were preparing attacks. Israel says it killed 20 militants, but they also acknowledged that at least seven civilians were killed by Israeli airstrikes. But they say several of the others who died were actually hit by Islamic Jihad rockets that fell short into Gaza. And Israel says around a thousand rockets were fired from Gaza, but air defenses protected Israel.
ESTRIN: Yeah. And so there was not a single death in Israel because of the air defenses there. What about in Gaza?
TANIS: In Gaza, there were some buildings destroyed. Many children were killed, at least 17. Many others were injured. I actually met a young boy whose two legs were broken when he and his 5-year-old sister were out taking a walk and the Israeli air strikes began, and she actually died. But this time, the physical damage was relatively limited in comparison to other wars. The big impact was really the emotional and psychological trauma this caused to people who are repeatedly living under attacked. And they know it's not going to end here.
ESTRIN: And yet, we've seen this in past wars. It's a fact of life in Gaza that daily life goes back. People return to their routines. What are you seeing on the streets?
TANIS: That's right. You know, the cloud of what happened last week remains hanging and is palpable when you talk to people here. And there was a recent vigil at Shifa Hospital - that's the main hospital complex here - for the children that were killed. And there are still a lot of wounded people at hospitals all around the city including some severe injuries. But at the same time, as you mentioned, you know, the city is back up and running. Stores are open. It's now the weekend. I've already passed by at least four weddings.
TANIS: Restaurants are absolutely packed. And you can see people swimming at the beach.
ESTRIN: That's NPR's Fatma Tanis in Gaza. Thanks, Fatma.
TANIS: Thank you.
ESTRIN: That image of people back on the beach brings me to the story I wanted to tell from my own recent trip to Gaza as NPR correspondent in the Mideast. It's easy to forget Gaza is on the Mediterranean coast. The sea is the one escape people in Gaza have from a tough daily life in between the wars, living under blockade by Israel and Egypt with widespread poverty. But even the sea has not been a safe place for many years because raw sewage has been dumped into the sea. For years, most of Gaza's beaches were deemed too dangerous for swimming. Imagine living a short walk away from the Mediterranean Sea and not even dipping a toe inside. But that is changing for the better.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)
ESTRIN: When I visited Gaza a few weeks ago, I saw families with kids wading into the waves. Samah Badawi let her young daughters swim for the first summer in four years.
SAMAH BADAWI: (Through interpreter) Before, it was disgusting. It was dirty. They always said on the news that it was full of microbes. I have young kids. If they'd gone swimming, I'd be taking them straight to the hospital from the sea.
ESTRIN: Authorities say this summer, about 65% of beaches are clean enough for swimming.
BADAWI: (Through interpreter) The smell - there's no smell. None.
ESTRIN: After years of buying frozen, imported fish, she's buying fresh fish again.
BADAWI: (Through interpreter) Sardine. Delicious.
ESTRIN: This one bright spot comes against the backdrop of the conditions that helped cause the sewage problem in the first place. As we saw just this past week, the periodic fighting between Israel and militant groups continues on top of a 15-year blockade by Israel and Egypt. And there's political infighting between Palestinian factions over resources. All that has undermined Gaza's power supply and sewage treatment.
For years, Gaza needed new wastewater treatment plants. European countries plus Kuwait and Japan donated hundreds of millions of dollars to build them. But for a long time, Israel blocked cement and equipment, afraid it could be used to arm Hamas. But Israeli officials say they have recently changed course. They talk about a new Israeli strategy to gradually improve conditions in Gaza to help keep the peace. Israel has allowed in equipment and improved Gaza's energy sources, even letting in solar panels to help power sewage treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
ESTRIN: By late last year, new plants were up and running. At this one, stinky, dark water flows through a channel, gets separated from dark, black sludge, and comes out the other end clean and smelling good. Here's Fahid Rabah, a plant engineer.
FAHID RABAH: Very happy and very proud because this is good for our people and for their health. And very proud because we feel that we were part of this improvement.
ESTRIN: Now, most of the time, most of Gaza's sewage is properly treated and flows safely into the sea.
RABAH: We have more than 2 million people here in Gaza - and very crowded, very small area. And the only place that they can go breathe is the sea.
ESTRIN: The situation is still precarious. Rabah said Israel has held up requests for spare parts and more chemicals to test the treated wastewater.
RABAH: To be honest, we are running out of chemicals. In two months from today, there will be no chemicals to test our quality. We'll be blind. We will not be able to know whether we are performing the environmental quality or not.
ESTRIN: And Gaza still doesn't get 24/7 electricity even when there is no fighting. When there are power cuts, sewage is not treated. Plus, not all of Gaza is connected to these treatment plants, so some raw sewage still gets dumped into the sea anyway. Gaza fisherman Jihad Mekdad said he's seen what happens when fish feed on the sewage.
JIHAD MEKDAD: (Through interpreter) Do you know sometimes, we found some fishes that there is some worms going out from there, the top of the mouth?
ESTRIN: During the most recent conflict this past week, Gaza stopped treating its sewage as usual. There were power cuts, and employees couldn't safely reach the treatment plants, which are located right next to the Israeli fence with Gaza. For three days, Gaza dumped raw sewage into the sea, and it traveled up the coastline to Israel. This has happened many times before, and it's what helped Israel get serious about a Gaza cleanup.
Polluted water doesn't just stay in Gaza. It's disrupted an Israeli desalination plant that converts seawater into drinking water and supplies about one-fifth of Israel's drinking water. And it's affected Israeli beaches.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ESTRIN: This beach near the Gaza border was closed during the recent conflict because sewage was running again. This has happened over and over. I met Israeli Matan Berrebi a few weeks ago eating watermelon at a beachside cafe, and he said he thinks Hamas doesn't mind that sewage makes its way up to this beach.
MATAN BERREBI: I think for Hamas, the sewer that's come to Israel, it's - I think that they don't have problem with it. They say, you know, we live in hell, so we're going to let Israel taste from this hell.
ESTRIN: In recent years, Israeli towns near the Gaza border complained about the sewage. Israel relaxed some restrictions on machinery and cement going into Gaza, boosted electricity, and by the end of last year, the three new Gaza sewage plants were in operation. Israeli environmentalist Gidon Bromberg of EcoPeace Middle East said their lobbying on this appealed to Israel's self-interest. Their pitch was clean water is a security issue.
GIDON BROMBERG: No one is acting out of generosity in the midst of such violence. If we want to speak to decision-makers on the Israeli side, we need to be speaking to security, to educate decision-makers that military security is not the only security issue. And I think when we speak that language, we see results.
ESTRIN: So now with more sewage being treated, the sea is a safer place to swim in Gaza. That is one of the few gradual, positive trends we can report out of Gaza in a long time. But don't forget, half of the workforce in Gaza is unemployed. Most people there are poor, and all are stuck behind tightly controlled borders in a territory controlled by the Hamas militant group - considered a terrorist group by Israel, the European Union and the U.S. You never know when the next war will be as we saw in the past week, which Samah Badawi made a point of telling me when I met her a few weeks ago on the Gaza beach even as her family enjoyed the water.
BADAWI: (Non-English language spoken).
ESTRIN: She said, "my heart on the inside is shut off. We see wars, killing and death. A drop of clean water doesn't make us happy. We're just here for the kids to have some fun." And we watched her girls splash and giggle in the waves.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHATTING)
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