JERUSALEM — If you’ve ever slathered your skin in the healing, mineral-rich mud of the Dead Sea, you may want to stop reading now.
More than 8 million gallons of sewage from East Jerusalem is pumped downhill to the Dead Sea, raw and untreated, every day. That’s not just a little icky for those of us who like to float in the lowest body of water on earth. It’s also an environmental catastrophe, and potentially another flashpoint in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s the greatest environmental hazard in the country,” said Naomi Tzur, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, who heads the planning and environmental committees on the city council. “I don’t sleep easily at night knowing that this is happening.”
The Dead Sea is one of the contenders to be named among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World in an online poll that organizers estimate will draw a billion voters by the time results are announced next year. But its location also puts it in the firing line of a conflict almost as bitter as the sea’s highly saline water.
In 1993, the German government offered to finance a sewage-treatment plant for East Jerusalem. The plant was to be run jointly by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which was founded that year as part of the Oslo Accords. The Palestinians refused to accept a joint project because they didn’t want to recognize any Israeli authority over the territory occupied since 1967.
So while West Jerusalem has state of the art sewage facilities, the effluent of Palestinians living east of the pre-1967 border has nowhere to go but down to the Dead Sea. In a city of about 800,000 people, 32 percent of the population is essentially tipping the contents of their toilets, showers and kitchen appliances directly into the Dead Sea.
Tzur’s Planning Committee met last week to examine alternative ways to dispose the sewage. One option would be to pump the it across town to process it in the West Jerusalem waste station. But Tzur, who isn’t allied with any Israeli political party, rejected the idea because it would take from the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem the ability to reuse their wastewater.
In a desert region where water is, to say the least, scarce, that represents a considerable resource that’d be lost to the Palestinians — even if its only current use is to buoy unsuspecting tourists at the resort hotels of the Jordan Valley.
The committee decided to examine the possibility of starting “preliminary purification” of the water, but added that it wouldn’t go any further until it had Palestinian agreement.
Urban planning is often fraught in Jerusalem because any development, no matter how small, is always considered in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The hot issue now is a city plan to demolish 22 Palestinian homes in a neighborhood called al-Bustan, which is just down the hill from the Western Wall plaza, where Jews pray, and is overlooked by the gray dome of the Aqsa Mosque.
City officials said they want to make room for an “archeological park.” But Palestinians think the plan is intended to push Palestinians out of the “holy basin,” which is how planners refer to the portion of the biblical Kidron Valley that winds away from the Old City toward the Dead Sea.
An Israeli group opposed to the project, Ir Amim (Hebrew for “City of Peoples”), said the true intent of the development is to hand over the area to a group of Israelis who have previously settled in predominantly Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, thus cementing Israel’s hold on the place and making it harder to divide the city in potential peace talks.
“It’s clear this Bustan area will be given to the settlers who have their own agenda for Jerusalem,” said Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim, an organization dedicated to equality between the different religious and national communities in Jerusalem.
Tzur, however, said that many of the homes due for demolition are “illegal”, threatened by annual flooding and built in a way that they can’t be connected to the city’s sewage system.
In the holy basin, the environment these days is just as unwholesome as the sewage flowing down into the Dead Sea.