If you want to understand the real reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been unsolvable for decades, one fact suffices: Palestinian leaders and activists would rather deprive their entire population of fresh water than allow an Israeli company to land a contract.

And if that assertion seems far-fetched, just consider what befell UNICEF last week when it sought to move forward with plans to build a desalination plant in Gaza.

According to both the UN and the Palestinians themselves, Gaza has a desperate shortage of pure drinking water. An official report issued by the Palestinian Water Authority last year stated that 90 percent of Gaza’s water supply is polluted, posing a serious threat to the health of Palestinian residents. A report issued the previous year by the UN Environment Program put the figure at 95 percent. Thus, if ever a place was in desperate need of a desalination plant, it’s Gaza. So UNICEF decided to step into the breach.

The agency’s policy, as its spokeswoman subsequently explained in an effort to justify its behavior, is always to buy from Palestinians if a qualified Palestinian vendor exists. Unfortunately, Palestinian companies don’t make desalination plants. But a world leader in the field happens to sit conveniently just over the border from Gaza, so UNICEF innocently thought the best solution, in terms of quality and cost-effectiveness, would be to invite bids from Israeli firms.

At that point, all hell broke loose. Gaza’s elected Hamas government announced that no Israeli would be allowed to set foot in Gaza. The Palestinian Contractors Union condemned UNICEF, announced a boycott of the agency and warned fellow Palestinians against cooperating with Israeli bidders. Other Palestinian groups threatened to stage protests against UNICEF and shut down its offices.

In other words, the Hamas government, the contractors union and other Palestinian civil-society groups all decided that letting their fellow Palestinians continue to drink polluted water was better than allowing an Israeli firm to win the contract. They would rather do without the plant than give any business to Israelis.

UNICEF hasn’t actually awarded the contract yet, so it may back down and buy the plant elsewhere. Having it built by a company based farther away would probably take longer and cost more, but the Palestinians don’t care: They’ve already made it clear that depriving Israeli firms of business takes precedence over clean drinking water for their people, and as for cost, the international community is picking up the tab anyway.

But regardless of what happens to this particular project, the lesson is clear: Faced with a choice between promoting their people’s welfare and harming Israel, both the elected Palestinian government and civil-society leaders unhesitatingly chose the latter. And until Palestinians reverse this order of priorities, peace will continue to be impossible.

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