Water crisis in the West Bank: How Israel choked off, then blamed Palestinians Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

After vehemently denying that it had anything to do with the water crisis in the West Bank, Israel has finally admitted that it was the culpable party after all.

Entire communities in the West Bank either have no access to water or have had their water supply reduced by almost half.

This alarming development has been taking place for weeks, since Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, decided to cut off — or significantly reduce — its water supply to Jenin, Salfit and many villages around Nablus, among other regions.

For weeks, Mekorot took no responsibility for the dire situation in the West Bank, but after liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, looked into the matter, it managed to obtain an Israeli admission.

Worse still, “Palestinian Water Authority officials told Haaretz that people at Mekorot have told them the supply cuts were going to last the entire summer,” the Israeli daily reported.

“Israel has been ‘waging a water war’ against Palestinians”, was the statement made earlier by Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah. The irony is that the water provided by Mekorot is actually Palestinian water, usurped from West Bank aquifers. While Israelis, including illegal West Bank colonists, use the vast majority of it, Palestinians are sold their own water back at high prices.

By shutting down the water supply at a time that Israeli officials are planning to export essentially Palestinian water, Tel Aviv is once more utilising water as a form of ‘collective punishment’.

This is hardly new. It was an Israeli government strategy that has been in use for decades, but was mastered mostly during the first Palestinian intifada or uprising, which had erupted in 1987 throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Whenever clashes erupted between the Israeli army and stone-throwing children, one of the initial actions carried out by the Israeli Civil Administration — a less ominous title for the offices of the Israeli occupation army — was to collectively punish the entire population of whichever refugee camp rose up in rebellion.

The steps the Israeli army took became redundant, although they grew more vengeful with time: A strict military curfew (meaning the shutting down of the entire area and the confinement of all residents to their homes under the threat of death), cutting off electricity, and shutting off the water supply.

Of course, these steps were taken only in the first stage of the collective punishment, which lasted for days or weeks, sometimes even months, pushing some refugee camps to the point of starvation. Since there was little the refugees could do to challenge the authority of a well-equipped army, they invested whatever meagre resources or time that they had to plot their survival.

Hence, the obsession over water, because once the water supply ran out, there was nothing to be done; except, of course, that of Salat Al-Istisqa or the ‘Prayer for Rain’ that devout Muslims invoke during times of drought.

In fact, more Palestinians have been conducting their prayer for rain since 1967 than at any other time. In that year, almost exactly 49 years ago, Israel occupied the two remaining regions of historic Palestine: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And throughout those years, Israel has resorted to a protracted policy of ‘collective punishment’: Limiting all kinds of freedom of Palestinians, and using the denial of water as a weapon.

Indeed, water was used as a weapon to subdue rebelling Palestinians during many stages of their struggle. In fact, this history goes back to the war of 1948, when Zionist militias cut off the water supply to scores of Palestinian villages around occupied Jerusalem to facilitate the ethnic cleansing of that region.

During the Nakba (or Catastrophe) of 1948, whenever a village or a town was conquered, the militias would immediately demolish its wells to prevent the inhabitants from returning. Illegal Jewish colonists still utilise this tactic to this day.

The Israeli military, too, continued to use this strategy. In the Second Intifada, Israeli airplanes shelled the water supply of whichever village or refugee camp they planned to invade and subdue. During the Jenin Refugee Camp invasion and massacre of April 2002, the water supply for the camp was blown up before the soldiers moved into the camp from all directions, killing and wounding hundreds.

Gaza remains the most extreme example of water-related collective punishment, to date. Not only is the water supply targeted during war but electric generators, which are used to purify the water, are often blown up by artillery from the sky. And until the decades-long siege is over, there is little hope to permanently repair either of these.

It is now common knowledge that the Oslo Accord was a political disaster for Palestinians; less known, however, is how Oslo facilitated the ongoing inequality underway in the West Bank.

The so-called Oslo II, or the Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995, made Gaza a separate water sector from the West Bank, thus leaving the Strip to develop its own water sources located within its boundaries. With the siege and recurring wars, Gaza’s aquifers produce anywhere between 5-10 per cent of ‘drinking-quality water.’ According to American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), 90 per cent of Gaza water (is) unfit for human consumption.

Therefore, most Gazans subsist on sewage-polluted or untreated water. The West Bank should — at least theoretically — enjoy greater access to water than Gaza, yet, this is hardly the case.

The West Bank’s largest water source is the Mountain Aquifer, which includes several basins: Northern, western and eastern. West Bankers’ access to these basins is restricted by Israel, which also denies them access to water from the Jordan River and to the Coastal Aquifer. Oslo II, which was meant to be a temporary arrangement until final status negotiations are concluded, enshrined the existing inequality by giving Palestinians less than a fifth of the amount of water enjoyed by Israel.

But even that prejudicial agreement has not been respected, partly because a joint committee to resolve water issues gives Israel veto power over Palestinian demands. Practically, this translates into 100 per cent of all Israeli water projects receiving the go-ahead, including those in the illegal colonies, while nearly half of Palestinians’ needs are rejected.

The irony is that Israel is now blaming the Palestinians for the Israeli company’s decision to cut off water. “The Palestinian Water Authority’s inability to set up additional water infrastructure in the West Bank ‘has led to the old and limited pipes being unable to transfer all the water needed in the region’,” RT quoted Israel Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor.

But how is the Palestinians to develop a decaying infrastructure if every decision must be approved by the joint committee, which rarely grants Palestinian demands?

The result of this impossible dichotomy is more suffering for ordinary people.

Presently, according to Oxfam, Israel controls 80 per cent of Palestinian water resources. “The 520,000 Israeli [colonists] use approximately six times the amount of water more than that used by the 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank.”

The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward, according to Stephanie Westbrook, writing in Israel’s +972 magazine: “The company pumping the water out is Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. Mekorot not only operates more than 40 wells in the West Bank, appropriating Palestinian water resources; Israel also effectively controls the valves, deciding who gets water and who does not.”

“It should be no surprise that priority is given to Israeli colonies, while service to Palestinian towns is routinely reduced or cut off,” as is the case at the moment. 

With current summer temperatures in the West Bank reaching 38 degrees Celsius, entire families are reportedly living on as little as 2-3 litres per capita, per day. The problem is reaching catastrophic proportions. This time, the tragedy cannot be brushed aside, for the lives and well-being of entire communities are at stake.

Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada and his latest My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.