In the northern Jordan Valley last week, Israeli forces destroyed a 1,000 metre pipeline built to provide water to Palestinian communities. In East Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been cut off from a regular supply of running water for nearly a year. In Gaza, the water infrastructure has been decimated and in the homes that do receive water it is still undrinkable. Water and who controls it has become a key part of Israel’s occupation, with the Palestinian territories; West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, in a constant struggle for the vital resource.
Before the birth of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who would become the country’s first president, said in 1919: “[It is] of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to control them at their source.” Rafael Eitan, chief of staff and minister of agriculture and environment, said some years later: “Israel must hold on to the West Bank to make sure that Tel Aviv’s taps don’t run dry.”
Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 1998: “And when I talk about the importance to Israel’s security… It means that a housewife in Tel Aviv can open the tap and there’s water running to it, and it’s not been dried up because of a rash decision that handed over control of our aquifers to the wrong hands.”
In 1967, the year the occupation began, Israel put the plan Weizmann had talked about as early as 1919 into action. All Palestinian water resources were declared Israeli State Property and Palestinians had to apply for permits to develop their water resources. After nearly 30 years, the Oslo Accords were signed, supposedly bringing an end to the situation. Another 20 years on, it is apparent that they instead formalised and legitimised an existing discriminatory arrangement – an arrangement still in place today.
In the West Bank, the Jordan River, one of the main water sources, has been diverted upstream into Lake Kinneret/Tiberias/Sea of Galilee – lakes inside Israel, while Palestinians are physically barred from accessing its river banks. Palestinians have access to one fifth of the mountain aquifer, the other main source, while Israel abstracts the balance, and in addition overdraws by more than 50 per cent, up to 1.8 times its share under Oslo.
The Separation Wall, roadblocks, checkpoints and other Israeli ‘security measures’ further restrict Palestinian communities’ access to water resources and filling points. Meanwhile Israeli settlers living in the same territory are supplied with an abundance of water; the consumption of more than 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank is about six times higher than that of 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
To boost insufficient supplies, the Palestinians must buy water from Israel’s national water company “Mekorot” – the same water that Israel extracts from the mountain aquifer and which the Palestinians should be able to extract for themselves.
Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign, an organisation which is part of a network of groups challenging Mekorot, said: “The real water problem in Palestine is not about scarcity of water. There is more annual rainfall in Ramallah than in London and per capita consumption of water in Israel is higher than the average consumption in Europe. The water problem in Palestine is created by Israel, through systematic theft of water and denial of access to water. Mekorot is the core player in implementing what we call Israel’s water apartheid.”
For East Jerusalem residents the situation is slightly different. East Jerusalem fell under Israeli jurisdiction after Israel annexed the whole of the city. The Jerusalemite Palestinians pay taxes to Israel and also technically qualify for Israeli healthcare, social benefits and services – including running water. However, the neighbourhoods of Ras Shehada, Ras Khamis, Dahyat A’salam and the Shuafat refugee camp have been suffering from a severe water crisis since last March when residents went three weeks without any water supply. They have been forced to buy water bottles at a high cost, and must limit their consumption by using electric pumps and industrial containers.
In Gaza, the water infrastructure is in pieces as a result of repeated wars and a blockade which has prevented repairs and maintenance. By the end of the latest bombardment over the summer, around 26 water wells had been completely or partially destroyed, while 46 kilometres of the water supply networks had been damaged, according to a statement by the Palestinian Water Authority. The water distribution network suffered an estimated $34.4 million worth of damage.
Waste water treatment is another longstanding problem in Gaza. Many residents are not connected to a sewage system and domestic waste flows into cesspits, contaminating groundwater. Electricity shortages and damages to waste water treatment facilities during “Operation Cast Lead”, Israel’s 2008-2009 military offensive, made the situation worse – some 90 million litres of untreated sewage flows into the Mediterranean daily.
Prior to the recent attack, 97 per cent of residents in Gaza were connected to a public water system. However, 90 per cent of this was undrinkable and so residents were forced to buy water treated in governmental or private factories, or factories run by charities. The public water system means households can have running water; however electricity and fuel shortages prevent the water from being pumped through the system.
Access to water is a highly politicised and manipulated resource in Palestine. As Palestinian communities suffer – albeit through the destruction of their wells, through water that doesn’t come through the taps, or sewage that flows into the street – it is clear that, in Palestine, water is not a right.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.