Apartheid Israel’s War on Water

Construction equipment rolls through Ramallah, Palestine, on April 29, 2011. (Photo: Michael Rose)Construction equipment rolls through Ramallah, Palestine, on April 29, 2011. (Photo: Michael Rose)

London is known the world over for its rainy weather, so most people would be shocked to find out that Ramallah, one of the largest cities in the West Bank, actually receives more annual rainfall. So why during the month of June did Palestinians face some of the harshest water shortages in decades?

The answer is as simple as it is outrageous. Since 1967, when it first occupied the West Bank, Israel has seized control of almost all the major water resources there. Annual quotas on the Palestinian consumption of water are strictly enforced, and attempts by Palestinians to develop their own water infrastructure have been thwarted by the Israeli military.

In 2011 alone, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) destroyed 89 water structures. The only source of underground water in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, of which Israel controls 80 percent. Palestinians are also not permitted to draw water from the Jordan River.

The destruction of Palestinians buildings — whether homes, outdoor bathrooms, cisterns or other rainwater gathering structures — is often justified by the Israeli army on grounds that they are “weak infrastructure.” The other usual pretext for demolition is the lack of building permits — permits that the Israeli government makes near impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

So while Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank struggle to find adequate water resources for their parched communities, Jewish-only settlements right next door live well hydrated on occupied land using appropriated water sources.

To quantify this, Palestinians consume 70 liters of water per capita per day on average, according to a report from Amnesty International. In some areas, the figure is as low as 20 liters per day, well below the 100 liters per capita recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). By contrast, Israelis consume up to 300 liters per capita per day.

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Such staggering inequality in water consumption is not only indicative of the discrimination in resource distribution, but of the apartheid laws on which the Israeli state is built.

Lush gardens, swimming pools and green lawns sit only a couple miles from completely dry villages, where Palestinians receive water once a week, or once every few weeks, if at all. Put more vividly, 450,000 Israeli settlers use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank combined. As a result, Palestinians are forced to spend as much as a quarter of their income on water tanks from private businesses.

Aside from the daily incursions, house demolitions and raids that Palestinians in the West Bank endure, the restrictions on the mobility of people and goods make it difficult for Palestinians to develop water sanitation infrastructure of their own or to use naturally built water infrastructure, such as caves.

Consider the Palestinian town of Susya, for example, in the West Bank not far from Hebron, which used to use water cisterns and caves to gather rainwater to use for irrigation. In 1999 and 2000, Israeli troops raided the village, attempted to expel its inhabitants, sealed off the caves and destroyed the cisterns. These demolitions are part of the Israeli plan to terrorize inhabitants and force them to move elsewhere, allowing Israeli forces to use the land for more illegal settlements.

The system of permits designed by the Israeli state to restrict access to water, sanitation and infrastructure is an added obstacle to the creation and maintenance of any sustainable water systems.

While the village of Susya fights a daily battle to obtain barrels of water from nearby cities, often enduring hour-long waits at checkpoints and spending large sums of money on poor quality water, the nearby settlement Shadmot Mechola, according to the Amnesty International report, advertises on its website “breathtaking tours of Amaryllis bulbs hot houses, tours of dairy farms, vineyards and orchards, (and) tours of farms in the Jordan Valley who specialize in crops of vegetables, fruits, flowers and spices for export in hot dry climate.”

The site fails, of course, to note that these crops grow on occupied land fed by water stolen from Palestinian villages while Palestinians only a few miles away struggle to get by on approximately five gallons of water a week.

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During the month of June — which was also the month of Ramadan this year, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset — the national Israeli water company Mekorot restricted water distribution to certain areas of the West Bank. Residents in these areas were forced to live on less than half their normal water allocations.

Shaher Eshtieh, the mayor of Salfit, which is one of the villages affected by the water crisis, told Aljazeera:

We’ve never seen anything like this; we are in full crisis mode, working around the clock to help our people, but we are doing this on our own…We’ve continuously reached out to the Palestinian government, the prime minister even, but they’ve been no help, and the Israelis are denying there is a problem.

For the past three days, my house has had a bit of water, just enough for drinking and cooking — not cleaning or anything — but before that, we were without any water at all for more than a week…It would be hard to live without water under normal circumstances, but during Ramadan we are all fasting and it’s so hot, this is miserable.

Other areas in the West Bank had to wait 40 days before receiving half their weekly quota from Mekorot.

When crises like these hit, Palestinians are forced to buy water from private companies. Given the conditions of rampant unemployment and poverty in Palestinian communities due to years of economic strangulation by Israel’s occupation, many residents simply don’t have the extra money to purchase water from private companies.

If forced to buy water for high prices in order to feed cattle and avoid the myriad of illnesses that result from poor hydration or contaminated water, many residents find themselves in debt.

Israeli control of Palestinian water allocations is in line with its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. The Israeli apartheid state flourishes and expands in part because of its appropriation of water resources, land and coastal territory.

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As the water crisis in the West Bank has become more dire, so has the situation in Gaza, the largest open-air prison in the world today.

Ever since Israel’s blockade of Gaza began in 2007, the Mediterranean Sea has been deemed off limits to Gaza’s residents. This leaves the coastal aquifer as Gaza’s main water source. Ninety-six percent of the water provided by the aquifer, however, is deemed unfit for human consumption.

According to Abeer Abu Shawish:

The over-extraction of this aquifer and the intrusion of seawater, coupled with the infiltration of agricultural fertilizers and untreated sewage, have all resulted in levels of chloride and nitrates up to three times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended standards.

According to the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), 45 percent of the water processed in desalination plants is also contaminated. The PWA itself is billions of dollars in debt because it’s had to resort to buying water tanks from large businesses, more often than not Israeli businesses, in order to supply water to local residents. Left with choosing between spending exorbitant amounts of money on water tanks from private businesses or consuming contaminated water, most of 1.8 million residents in Gaza choose the latter.

Most of Gaza’s water-related infrastructure was destroyed during Israel’s brutal assault of 2012, which took the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians.

Though many attempts to rebuild the water infrastructure have been launched both by Gaza’s residents and international aid organizations, most have been halted due to lack of equipment. Restrictions on material goods entering the strip have curtailed any real effort to rebuild cities after the 2008, 2012 and 2014 wars on Gaza.

Most equipment and materials required to rebuild infrastructure are labeled as “dual-use items” and are thus forbidden from entering Gaza. Dual-use items are items with both civilian and military uses. Such restrictions are nothing new in Israel’s war against the Palestinians. In 2009, items such as chocolate, toys and, of all things, coriander were prohibited from entering Gaza because they were deemed “luxury items.”

Water, then, becomes a weapon Israel uses to enforce collective punishment on the Palestinian people.

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Israel is not alone in using water as a tool to exploit and oppress. Flint, Michigan, and St. Joseph, Louisiana, are two examples of American cities facing water contamination at the hands of the local governments, forcing residents to buy bottled water and water tanks from private companies.

Unlike Israeli officials’ denial of the water crisis, St. Joseph Mayor Edward Brown responded to the water contamination in his city — albeit only after the town received media attention — by simply stating, “”We are aware of the problem, and we are working to solve it.”

It’s not likely that any change will happen soon in these downtrodden Americans towns, though. It’s been well over six months since Flint’s crisis made national news, and still people are having to continue to use store bought water for their basic necessities.

The struggle against Israel’s control of water and its restrictions on permits and equipment to build safe water infrastructure are directly linked to the ongoing project of Israeli usurpation of Palestinian land and its oppression of millions of Palestinians, both within Israel proper and in the West Bank and Gaza.

An end to Israeli occupation and apartheid is part and parcel of demanding an end to these horrific methods of punishment. As the struggle for water continues in Palestine, activists in the US should seek to link the struggle for life’s most fundamental liquid in Palestine and the US.

One of the most direct ways to do so is to forge links between the movement for boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) to secure basic Palestinian rights with those communities in the US fighting for access to the same life-essential resource of water.

The BDS campaign, launched in 2005 in response to a call by the Palestinian civil society, is growing stronger with new campaigns being launched on college campuses across the country. The most recent pushback by state legislatures across the US has proven that the BDS campaign is a real threat to Apartheid Israel.

It is also direct proof of the fact that activism works and that mobilizing students and organizing campaigns has a very real effect on political outcomes. Come September, as new BDS campaigns are launched and old ones continue, it is crucial to help build these campaigns and show support and solidarity with these ongoing efforts.