Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

Annexation threat heightens woes of West Bank's water-starved Palestinians

Israeli control over water pipelines and other infrastructure erodes livelihoods and quality of life for Palestinians

Palestinian farmer Amer Dababsee draws water from a well as his sons watch in the village of Khallet ad-Daba'a . Heidi Levine for The National
Palestinian farmer Amer Dababsee draws water from a well as his sons watch in the village of Khallet ad-Daba'a . Heidi Levine for The National

Mohammed Salama dreams of drinking water, supplied 24 hours a day, every day. That is because, he says, “We’ve reached the point of thinking about our rights as dreams.”

“I do a lot of interviews, and the last question, which I hate sometimes, [is often] how do you see the future,” says the 37-year-old Palestinian environmental activist in the Jordan Valley area of the occupied West Bank. “You know, without having control I can’t plan for a future. Maybe I hope, but I can’t plan for the future.”

The roughly 10,000 Israeli settlers living in the Jordan Valley receive almost a third of the amount of water available for all 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The deepening water disparity reflects the increasing control Israel has exerted over land and resources in territory it seized in 1967, and which Palestinians want to see as part of their future state. Such dynamics are now of greater magnitude after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a crunch-time campaign promise to win re-election in April, vowed to annex parts of the West Bank.

“If Netanyahu says, 'we want to take the Jordan Valley into Israel', for example, and I’m sure we [Palestinians will] say no, but who will listen?” Mr Salama says. “And who will help?

“Will they [Israel] give us all the [same] rights as Israeli people? No, they will not be doing that.”

Mr Salama lives in Auja village near Jericho in Area A of the West Bank. Under the interim 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah controls Area A and Area B. But 60 per cent of the West Bank is classed as Area C, where Israel retains full control. It is in Area C that Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, have flourished, while Israeli authorities bar Palestinian residents from building water, housing, road, electricity or other infrastructure of their own.

The reality for Palestinians like Mr Salama, however, is that the distinctions between Area A, B, and C increasingly exist only on paper. He already sees Israel controlling much of his life while the unpopular PA grows even weaker and hopes of self-rule dry up.

Israel treats the West Bank as part of its sovereign territory, and uses its available resources for its own interests

Amit Gilutz, B'Tselem

Mr Salama lists water as a key part of the puzzle. Under Oslo II, a nominally five-year agreement signed in 1995, Israel retained control of all West Bank water resources. Today the Israeli water company Mekorot services all of the West Bank. Mekorot sells water to the PA, which distributes it in Areas A and B, while Israeli settlements receive their own allotment. However, according to various Oslo stipulations, Palestinians in Areas A and B receive a smaller water allotment than Israelis in Area C, leading to shortages that are particularly acute in summer.

Tens of Palestinian villages and hamlets in Area C, moreover, are left without water because Israel has refused requests to connect them to the water line. Instead, the villagers must pay for expensive water brought in by lorry – which sometimes cannot even travel the unofficial and rough makeshift roads to the villages. Israel has also classed significant portions of Palestinian parts of Area C as closed military zones or national parks, where building is forbidden.

Roads leading to some West Bank villages are too rough for water lorries to travel. Heidi Levine for The National
Roads leading to some West Bank villages are too rough for water lorries to travel. Heidi Levine for The National

“De facto, Israel treats the West Bank as part of its sovereign territory, and uses its available resources for its own interests, including settlement expansion, at the direct expanse of Palestinians,” says Amit Gilutz of B’Tselem.

According to a 2016 B’Tselem study, on average Israelis each receive 287 litres of water a day, while Palestinians in the West Bank connected to the water grid receive 79 litres and Palestinians without grid access receive between 20 and 50 litres.

Last year Nidal Younes, a 43-year-old community organiser in the South Hebron Hills, and a group of volunteers armed with a European Union grant built a 20-kilometre pipe network through private Palestinian land to pump water to 12 isolated villages in Area C. The water revolution lasted for six months – until Israeli authorities arrived one day in February and tore up the pipes, detaining Mr Younes as well.

The Israeli civil administration said the “enforcement action” was taken in a closed military zone where illegal structures were built without permits, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Mr Younes, who heads the Masafer Yatta village council, has a different assessment. “All of this is for the political goal of what?” he asks, speaking to The National from his office in Yatta in Area A, as it is not feasible for him to have an office in Area C. “Displacement. Displacing the people from this area.”

The Israelis, he says, “want the land but they don’t want the people”.

At the same time, Mr Younes says, many Palestinians are caught in between “with their house in Area B and their field in Area C”.

If an Israeli annexation plan of some kind were to ensue, the water-stressed Palestinian areas of the Jordan Valley and South Hebron Hills in Area C could be on the table due to their proximity to illegal Israeli settlements and land favourable for farming.

The Jordan Valley has historically been ripe for agriculture. These days, Israeli settlements are doing well – but Palestinian farmers and grazers are not. Over the past 10 years, says Mr Salama, he has watched farms dry up and farmers sell their land and leave. If they stay, they often turn to work in Israeli settlements, where exploitation is high as Israeli labour laws apply in theory but are not enforced.

Mr Salama recalls a friend who met him late one night two summers ago, angry and fuming after work.

“He said, 'Imagine, I spent 10 hours today in a settlement cleaning the water and swimming pool and when I’m back home I didn’t find water for a shower.' And its just two kilometres between the village and the settlement.”

Over in the South Hebron Hills, farmers often struggle to afford water for both their families and their livestock.

Amer Dababsee, 37, lives in the isolated village of Khallet ad-Daba’a, where a four-wheel-drive is needed to travel the rocky road leading to it. Mr Dababsee says he barely gets by by growing wheat, along with occasional European grants to help the villagers remain, like the one that enabled him to remodel his small house.

Mr Dababsee has a hand-drawn well, no electricity supply and spends about 600 shekels (Dh618) every two months on water.

“You do what you can,” he says of his options in remaining. “Annex or don't annex, we are here.”

Nearby his mother, Amina, 67, has a well with a pump powered by solar panels, also funded by European aid. As she has aged, she says, she has been unable to leave their isolated hamlet of 12 families.

Amina Dababsee, 67, has a solar-powered pump to draw water from her well in Khallet ad-Daba'a village in the isolated South Hebron hills of the West Bank. Heidi Levine for The National
Amina Dababsee, 67, has a solar-powered pump to draw water from her well in Khallet ad-Daba'a village in the isolated South Hebron hills of the West Bank. Heidi Levine for The National

The topography of the West Bank in some places appears timeless and in others is changing fast – dynamics the Oslo accords could not have accounted for 25 years ago. Auja, for example, is located in Area A off of Route 90. But if Palestinian police want to go to neighbouring Jericho, also in Area A, they must co-ordinate with Israeli authorities to cross highway since it is considered Area C and PA police cannot work here.

Also at the receiving end of these water and sovereignty woes is a 60-year-old shepherd in Auja who gave his nickname as Abu Ibrahim. He says he spends on average 300 shekels a month, about a quarter of his monthly expenses, on water for his family and goats and sheep. There is water in his well from December to April — but after that he is at the mercy of private water suppliers, often simply someone with a lorry and a water connection.

Palestinian shepherd Abu Ibrahim gestures towards a nearly dry reservoir in the West Bank village of Auja in the Jordan Valley. Heidi Levine for The National
Palestinian shepherd Abu Ibrahim gestures towards a nearly dry reservoir in the West Bank village of Auja in the Jordan Valley. Heidi Levine for The National

Abu Ibrahim has spent his whole life here. But he says he is not fond of his newer neighbours: rich Palestinians, often from Ramallah or Jerusalem, who do not care about agriculture and bought the land for weekend getaways from farmers whose land and livelihoods dried up.

He points to a tall tree that has toppled sideways onto an unused building, its roots ripped up from the dry earth and left exposed. The lack of water killed it, he says.

As another summer begins, conditions appear ripe for more uprooted trees to dot the Palestinian West Bank landscape.

Updated: May 18, 2019 10:01 AM

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