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Thirsty for Justice: How Israel Deprives the Palestinians of Access to Water

Israel has bombed and poisoned Palestinian water sources.

Palestinian children carry jerrycans to fill them with water at Al-Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City, on October 30, 2017. (Photo: Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images)

The fight by Indigenous folks for their water rights permeates the globe.

Last year, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota fought loud and proud against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, fearing that the pipeline’s inevitable leaks could contaminate the tribe’s main source of drinking water, the Missouri River. As many of us in the United States thankfully now recognize, this act of resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies constitutes only the latest chapter in the centuries-long struggle by the Indigenous peoples of this continent against the genocidal forces of settler colonialism. In fact, the fight by Indigenous folks for their water rights permeates the globe at this very hour. It extends to South America, Australia and to Israel/Palestine, where the settler colonial state of Israel, with the strong backing of the US, continues to systematically block Palestinians’ attempts to access clean water.

The UN estimates that 96 percent of the water in Gaza is unfit for consumption.

The lack of potable water for Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories, and even within the state of Israel itself, is a full-blown health crisis. A person needs at minimum 120 liters of water per day, according to the World Health Organization, but an average Palestinian in the West Bank receives only 73 liters of water per day. As a 2009 World Bank report on water restrictions in the Occupied Territories put it, many Palestinian communities in the West Bank, particularly in the area under strictest Israeli control, “face water access comparable to that of refugee camps in Congo or Sudan.” In the Jordan Valley, Israelis use roughly 81 times more water per capita than Palestinians in the West Bank, filling their swimming pools to the brim. In Gaza, the situation is even worse: the United Nations estimates that 96 percent of the water is unfit for consumption. By year’s end, Gaza’s only source of water, the Coastal Aquifer, will be depleted, and irreversibly so by 2020, when the UN projects that Gaza will be literally uninhabitable.

Israel and the US have blocked every attempt by the Palestinians to develop and maintain sustainable access to water.

Like many humanitarian crises across the globe, the Palestinian water crisis didn’t evolve naturally. As a matter of official policy and using great precision, Israel and the US have blocked every attempt by the Palestinians to develop and maintain sustainable access to water. In the West Bank, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, documents how Israeli authorities routinely confiscate and demolish Palestinian water infrastructure. Most recently, B’Tselem has reported on the Israeli Army and Civil Administration destroying rainwater cisterns, slashing pipes and seizing construction equipment, like welding machines. An extensive report by Amnesty International in 2009 shows that these cruel practices of the Israeli military and Civil Administration in the West Bank go back decades.

The Separation Wall, constructed and expanded by Israel in violation of orders by the International Criminal Court, stands as the biggest physical barrier to Palestinian realization of their water rights. Winding through Palestinian territory, the wall cuts off Palestinians in the West Bank from their wells and cisterns, as well as some of the choicest farmland in the area. Along the wall, the Israeli military arbitrarily declares wide swaths of land in the West Bank to be “closed military areas,” further seizing the already meager patches of territory left to the Indigenous population.

Israel deliberately bombed water treatment and sewage facilities in Gaza for no other purpose than to inflict collective punishment on the residents.

In Gaza, now in its 10th year under the brutal Israeli blockade, residents cannot import any materials that they need to repair or improve their water network, which Israel has decimated during repeated assaults. The official UN fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (codename Operation Cast Lead) found that Israel deliberately bombed water treatment and sewage facilities in Gaza for no other purpose than to inflict collective punishment on the residents of Gaza — a major war crime. Subsequent reports by the UN and human rights groups found that Israel committed these same kinds of unjustifiable intentional attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in the 2014 conflict (codename Operation Protective Edge), severely damaging what little was left of Gaza’s water and sanitation network.

Furthermore, these crimes were not the aberrant acts of a few rogue soldiers, but were the outcome of official Israeli policy. And we know so beyond a reasonable doubt based on two principal pieces of evidence. First, Israeli officials’ explicitly stated before, during and after the conflicts that they would (and did) inflict collective punishment on the residents of Gaza. Israel’s so-called Dahiya doctrine enshrines this strategy of total war (that is, war against civilians and civilian infrastructure, not just military targets) into official policy. Second, we can note, as the UN fact-finding missions did, how Israeli authorities refused to modify their strategy of indiscriminately shelling densely-packed residential areas over the course of the conflict, even after the high civilian death tolls and allegations of war crimes were mounting.

Besides massively and systematically destroying the Palestinian water system through direct violence, Israel also prevents Palestinians from maintaining or developing their network by bureaucratic means. After conquering the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel issued a series of military orders that gave the Israeli Army complete control over all water-related issues in the Occupied Territories and required Palestinians to obtain permits from the Israeli army in order to pursue any and all water projects. All unpermitted water installations would be (and were) confiscated or demolished. While in theory, Palestinians could still manage their water needs after a long and complicated bureaucratic process, in practice, Palestinians were hardly ever granted permits. According to B’Tselem, from 1967 to 1996, Israel granted Palestinians just 13 permits, and all these permits only covered domestic projects; in other words, they wouldn’t even cover the work needed to repair existing wells and pipes, let alone expand the water network in order to serve the growing population.

In the 1990s, as a part of the Oslo Accords, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization made a provisional agreement to “share” access to the Mountain Aquifer, a vast underground source of water beneath the West Bank and the easternmost parts of the State of Israel. This agreement, like most agreements made across steep power gradients, reflected the inequality between the negotiating parties, with Israel taking 80 percent of the water potential from the Mountain Aquifer and the Palestinian Authority taking the remaining 20 percent. Keep in mind that the Mountain Aquifer is the only source of water for the Palestinians living in the West Bank, because since 1967, Israel has prevented Palestinians from accessing the shores of the Jordan River. Israel, on the other hand, has many other sources of drinking water, including from the Sea of Galilee, the Coastal Aquifer, its water recycling system (the most advanced in the world by far) and its desalination facilities (also among the most advanced in the world). Nonetheless, Israel, being the unquestionably dominant player here, took the lion’s share of the water resources between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Even worse, it was revealed eight years ago that Israel had in fact been over-extracting from the Mountain Aquifer at almost double the agreed-upon rate, drying up Palestinian wells while causing potentially irreversible harm to the aquifer.

Meanwhile, the old oppressive permitting regime continued, albeit through a new institution called the Joint Water Committee (JWC) that was meant to review permits for water-related projects. But, as the World Bank pointed out in its 2009 report, the name of this committee is a misnomer since the JWC “does not function as a ‘joint’ water resource governance institution” due to “fundamental asymmetries” between the Israelis and Palestinians. Amnesty International described the situation more plainly in its report, writing that, “The Joint Water Committee merely institutionalized the intrinsically discriminatory system of Israeli control over Palestinian resources that had already been in existence since Israel’s occupation of [the West Bank and Gaza] three decades earlier.” The World Bank and Amnesty International pointed out that between 2001 and 2009, about one-half of all Palestinian projects presented to the JWC were approved, compared to the near 100 percent approval rate for Israeli projects. Of the Palestinian projects approved by the JWC, those that touch on Area C of the West Bank (which most do, for geographical reasons) must obtain a second approval from the Israeli Civilian Administration, and this second approval process is done without public participation or representation by Palestinians. So, as much as one-third of water in the Palestinian water system is lost in leakages due to old and inefficient networks that can’t be replaced or modernized because it’s so difficult to obtain a permit.

In addition to the official state-sanctioned strangulation of Palestinians’ water supply, settlers in the West Bank do their part through sabotaging Palestinian water infrastructure and resources. Amnesty International has reported on how settlers have destroyed Palestinian water pipes, poisoned rainwater cisterns and dumped untreated sewage into Palestinian springs. Recent reports show this pattern of settler violence against Palestinians and their allies continuing up to the present.

Significantly, human rights organizations have noted that, though these despicable attacks by settlers aren’t officially state-sanctioned, the Israeli authorities rarely investigate them, so the perpetrators generally enjoy impunity, feeling free to continue terrorizing their Palestinian neighbors. It takes no stretch of the imagination to consider how Israel would treat Palestinians even suspected of such crimes, because we know that Palestinians even suspected of terrorism sink into the bowels of the Israeli prisons, never to be heard from again, while Israel demolishes the family homes of suspected violent resisters, letting Palestinians and the world know that Israel won’t tolerate any resistance to its tyranny.

Lastly, we must remember that Israel can only deprive the Palestinians of water because the US allows it. In the past, when Israel committed massacres against Palestinians, or acted in other ways that US presidents didn’t like, presidential administrations have occasionally threatened to cut off the flow of military aid, and in these cases, Israel eventually fell into line. But the flow of US military aid to Israel, roughly $3.1 billion per year (soon to increase to $3.8 billion annually), has continued unabated as Israel has condemned the Palestinians to die of thirst, in violation of not just international law, but US domestic law, which prohibits the sending of non-humanitarian aid to known violators of human rights, which Israel plainly is.

Water is one of the key components of life as we know it. If we allow our country to continue to green light Israel’s dehydration of the Palestinians, we will be aiding and abetting all further deaths and illnesses that befall the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories as a result. Worse, if present trends continue, we will be responsible for yet another genocide against an Indigenous people.

Unlike past generations, many of us now recognize and regret how our nation nearly exterminated the Native people of North America. But what good is this retrospective shame if we don’t act to prevent our country from exterminating another Native people, the Palestinians? The reality is, if we do nothing, the US, through our ally Israel, will surely repeat these darkest chapters of US history. We can’t let that happen.

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