The high cost of Israel’s water policies
A Palestinian girl takes a rest on her way to collect drinking water in Gaza, where in 2010more than 90% of the water available was polluted and unfit for human consumption. (Photo: Iyad El Baba/UNICEF-oPt)
As Massachusetts officials and businessmen prepare to launch water industry collaborations with Israeli companies, they should be aware of certain facts about “Israel’s innate understanding of water issues” (as Boston Globe reporter Erin Ailworth put it in a November 17 front page article).
Both Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel are paying a heavy price for what Ailworth terms “the modern version of the land of milk and honey.” The Israeli government has created one integrated water system for both ‘Israel proper’ and the occupied Palestinian territory that benefits Israeli Jews, while depriving the Palestinian population in both areas of their right to access water.
The Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation that I led to the West Bank and Israel last month saw the impact of Israel’s discriminatory water policies. These have been documented by the UN, World Bank, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and water researchers from Tufts University, among others.
“Water is a nightmare in Palestine,” we were told by Issa Amro, a Palestinian resident of Hebron, who led us through a once vibrant part of the West Bank city that has been largely emptied of Palestinians by Israeli restrictions and Israeli settler aggression. “There is not enough for basic needs or agriculture. Settlers get the majority of the water. In the summer, water comes through the pipe every three or four weeks, while settlers get as much as they want.”
Wherever we went in the West Bank we encountered this stark inequality in water distribution. For instance, while the fortress-like Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem have swimming pools and irrigated landscaping and lawns, Bethlehem can go for 10-15 days without flowing water, as residents are forced to pay for ‘empty pipes.’ The pipes in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp have been empty for more than two months at a time, leaving entirely depleted the rooftop tanks where potable water is stored.
The water shortages that afflict West Bank cities and towns are even more crippling in villages and rural areas. There, Palestinian agriculture has been dealt a deadly blow by Israel’s control since 1967 of the occupied territory’s water sources, including the underground aquifers and the waters of the Jordan River. Since 1967, half of the wells that sustained Palestinian communities have been destroyed, new wells are forbidden and settlers and soldiers routinely vandalize cisterns erected to collect rainwater.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that an estimated 313,000 Palestinians from 113 West Bank communities are not connected to any water network and depend on springs and rainwater-collecting cisterns that are vulnerable to attack, or have to pay the Israeli Water Company exorbitant sums for water that is privately trucked in.
Today, Israelis – more than half a million of them West Bank settlers – use more than 80 percent of the water from the West Bank’s three principal aquifers, leaving only 10 – 20 percent for Palestinians. Four years ago the World Bank found the per capita water consumption by an Israeli is four times that of a Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza. More recent studies estimate that Israeli water consumption is five or six times higher on a per capita basis.
What does this mean for daily life? While the World Health Organization has set 100 liters per day as the ‘absolute minimum’ needed for daily consumption per person, Palestinians are forced to subsist on just 70 liters per capita per day, an amount that dips to 60 liters for one million of the West Bank’s 2.7 million residents, according to OCHA.
Israelis meanwhile enjoy the per capita equivalent of 300 liters per day. This disparity enables West Bank Israeli settlements – that are illegal under international law – to have 13 times more land under irrigation in the agriculture-rich Jordan Valley than indigenous Palestinian communities.
Combined with home demolitions and the fragmentation of Palestinian territory by walls, military checkpoints, closed military zones and ‘settler-only’ roads that are off limits to Palestinians, water has become a weapon in Israel’s decades-long battle to dispossess Palestinians of their land and livelihoods.
Water has also been used as a weapon against the Bedouin citizens of Israel, as we found out when we traveled to the village of Al-Araqeeb, one of the 35 ‘unrecognized villages’ of the Negev that get no services or water from their government. Al-Araqeeb, where Bedouin have lived since early last century, has been repeatedly raided since 2010, its homes demolished, its thousands of olive trees uprooted, its sheep sprayed with herbicides and its water sources seized.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a central actor in clearing the Negev of between 30,000 and 70,000 Bedouin who, under the controversial ‘Prawer Plan’ that has passed its first reading in the Knesset, are due to be forcibly moved off their land into poorly serviced townships.
In their place, the JNF is planting swiftly growing eucalyptus trees. While Israel chose not to pipe water to Bedouin communities, it is now ignoring sound ecological practices by irrigating notoriously water-greedy trees in the desert.
Massachusetts officials who are planning to collaborate with Israeli water firms in a new ‘Water Innovation Network’ should travel to the West Bank and Negev desert to see for themselves what an apartheid water system looks like.