Israeli soldiers confiscate water storage tanks on West Bank
EIN AL HILWA, WEST BANK // These rocky foothills are a forbidding place even for the scattered Bedouin communities that have herded livestock here for generations. Yet it is not the summer heat that is threatening their way of life.
Last month, Israeli soldiers began confiscating water-storage containers used by Bedouin in several pastoral encampments on the northern fringes of the West Bank's Jordan Valley area.
No explanation was given to the dozens of impoverished residents, who have since been rationing their already scarce water supplies and tending to thirsty livestock.
But no explanation was needed. Many here see the confiscations as the latest Israeli tactic to put pressure on Bedouin and Palestinian residents to leave this resource-rich area.
"Water is the source of life. Without it, how can we live here?" said Mohammed Aleyan, 34, a shepherd from Ein Al Hilwa encampment.
He said the soldiers came without notice and handcuffed him and his 15-year-old nephew before emptying water containers and leaving with the mobile tanks.
Because the encampments are denied access to Israeli utilities, the Bedouin have had to bring in water from distant springs by lorry.
Fatimah Ka'abne, a mother of seven aged in her 30s, said that some women pleaded with the soldiers to stop "but they threw us to the ground". She said: "They laughed at us."
The incidents highlight the broader struggle over the Jordan Valley and its fertile fields and substantial supplies of underground water.
The vast area, essential for a viable Palestinian state, forms more than a quarter of the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel was allowed to directly administer more than 60 per cent of the West Bank - including most of the Jordan Valley.
Little remit was granted to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and that may never be increased.
Few expect Israel to relinquish control any time soon, said Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Israelis had begun to question the ability of Jordan - which maintains a peace treaty with Tel Aviv - to police its boundary with the Jordan Valley.
"The situation in Jordan is more chaotic than it used to be," Mr Brom said.
Jordan - like Egypt, the other Arab country that has a peace treaty with Israel - has formed an integral pillar to Tel Aviv's regional security.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, echoed this sentiment last year, reaffirming his position that Israel must retain a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians because "Israel's line of defence begins here".
In the meantime, Israel has been expanding Jordan Valley settlements and extracting disproportional amounts of water from aquifers.
The area's 37 settlements, home to about 9,500 residents, control an estimated 86 per cent of Jordan Valley land. Much of that is used for an extensive network of farms. So much, in fact, that Jordan Valley settlers use about a third of the annual amount of water available to all 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians, according to the Israeli-rights watchdog of the occupied Palestinian territories, B'Tselem.
Some Jordan Valley Bedouin survive on 20 litres a day, which B'Tselem describes on its website as barely meeting the World Health Organisation's standard for "short-term survival".
For Palestinians, the reason for such disparities is clear. Before the Israeli occupation began, between 200,000 and 320,000 Arabs, both Palestinian and Bedouin, lived in the Jordan Valley. Now, that number is about 56,000.
"They want to kick us out of the Jordan Valley and concentrate us in the cities," said Ibrahim Sawaftah, a Palestinian activist in the area.
Many non-Jews have left the valley because of Israel's policies of home demolitions and military exercises in the area.
Demolitions have increased over the past year. In 2011, Israel demolished 212 Palestinian structures in the area, displacing 432 people, according to statistics provided by the Displacement Working Group, a collection of non-governmental organisations and aid agencies.
Even though human-rights organisations say demolitions violate obligations under international law as an occupying power, Israel argues they were built without permits. Obtaining such permits is practically impossible for Palestinians.
Days before confiscating water containers in encampments in and around Ein Al Hilwa, soldiers demolished two Bedouin structures and conducted military exercises. Israel designated these areas as firing zones in the 1970s, rendering their inhabitants - including those living in the area before then - illegal.
Muna Aleyan, 36, her seven children and neighbours were last month forced out of their encampments by soldiers for a training exercise. They were allowed to return the following day.
"We had to leave all our possessions, and they just threw us in the street like animals," she said.
A few days later, the soldiers came again to confiscate their water, Mrs Aleyan said. She added that soldiers had for several years blocked their access to a nearby spring, forcing them to pay higher sums for water shipped in from other West Bank areas.
"They don't do this to the Jews," she said, pointing to the Israeli settlement of Maskiyot on the adjacent hilltop.
The coordinator of government activities in the territories, a branch of Israel's defence ministry that operates in the West Bank, said that the water confiscations were punishment for the "expanding phenomenon of water theft" from mains in the area.
It did not mention whether anyone had been charged with a crime.
Officials from the PA have intervened by giving new storage containers and mobile-water tankers to families in the area. Mr Aleyan said he was able to provide water for his family and his sheep because of the PA's assistance.
Given the restrictions, he doubted how long that would last, citing a comment made to him by an Israeli soldier who confiscated his water tank.
"I asked: 'What do you want me to do now'?" Mr Alayan recalled. "The soldier looked at me and said: 'You can leave'."
This article has been corrected since publication. Israel demolished 212 Palestinian structures in the Jordan Valley in 2011, not in the past 12 months as originally stated.
Updated: July 19, 2012 04:00 AM