Living without water

A people pushed to breaking point: living without water in the West Bank.

On the brink of survival

In Area C of the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli and Palestinian communities are living distinctly different realities. Area C covers 61% of the West Bank and is under near full control of the Israeli authorities, affecting 300,000 Palestinians access to water. Sitting within the Jordan Valley, the land in Area C is rich and fertile, fed from underground aquifers. Whilst Israeli settlers are able to exploit all of the potential of the land, maintaining vast and lucrative agricultural businesses, Palestinian communities are living in a state of permanent poverty.

The settlements in Area C are deemed illegal by international law, however, Israel’s de facto control of the area has enabled them to develop an extensive water infrastructure. Their state-owned water company, Mekerot, provides the settlements with thousands of litres of water daily. In contrast, the Israeli authorities restrict Palestinian’s access to water, forcing them to either purchase water from trucks at a much higher price, or resort to more clandestine methods of water collection. After decades of resilience by Palestinian farmers in Area C, life is about to get even harder. Israel has recently announced they will be moving forward with plans to annex large sections of the West Bank, meaning that they will formally claim the land as part of the state of Israel. Alongside the potential for this igniting a considerable escalation in conflict, the ability of Palestinian communities to continue to resist the occupation is in serious doubt.

“The Palestinian is targeted through water, which is the pillar of life and he will stay here resisting until the last drop.”

– Abu Saqer.

A history of division

The current situation is as a result of over 50 years of land seizures in the West Bank by Israel. Since 1967, Israeli policy has been to occupy land by building settlements. It is estimated that between 600,000 – 750,000 Jewish Israeli’s now live in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the early 1990’s, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas, A, B and C. The majority of Palestinians live crowded into areas A and B, however, it is within the largest section, Area C, where most of the water resources and fertile land exists, and therefore where the majority of Israeli settlements are. The control of Area C was supposed to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1999, as per the Oslo Accords, however this failed to happen, leaving Israel in full military control of the area.

In the present day, Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities sit side by side, sharing the same stretch of land, yet their experiences are entirely disparate. Israel wields its control of the area in unconcealed favour of the settlers, and at the detriment of Palestinian communities, severely limiting their access to water and therefore their ability to build infrastructure. Abu Saqer, a Palestinian from the Al Hadiddya community, comes from a long line of farmers who have called Area C of the West Bank their home for generations. Despite his ancestral ties to the land, Abu’s access to water is precarious at best, barely managing to support food production to feed his family. In stark contrast, living just north of Abu is Eli Gilad, an Israeli farmer from the Masua community. Eli maintains a date plantation of thousands of water-thirsty trees, with crop yields so abundant that he exports his dates internationally. This is just one of many examples of how the division and inequality between Palestinian and Israeli communities can be seen in practice in the West Bank.

Abu Saqer, Palestinian farmer, at his home in Area C, West Bank.

Punitive water policies

Palestinian’s living in Area C are in desperate need of a solution to address water security, with the lack of water access leaving their communities thirsty and impoverished. According to OCHA, some Palestinians in the West Bank are surviving on only 20 litres of water per person per day, the recommended daily minimum is 100 litres, and the average consumption by Israeli’s is 300 litres. The reason for this glaring disparity is due to the punitive water policies imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli authorities, depriving and restricting their access to reliable water sources.

Historically, Palestinian farmers have accessed water through wells on their land. The wells providing enough water for farmers to maintain healthy harvests, take care of animals and support their families. Under Israel’s control, this is no longer the case. The Israeli authorities have now sunk so many wells to divert water to the settlements, that many wells now supply extremely limited water to Palestinian communities, or they have dried up all together. Israel also blocks Palestinians from building any new water infrastructure. Palestinians are required to gain a permit for construction from the Israeli military, these permits are near impossible to obtain.  B’tselem views Israel’s treatment of water as a way of dispossessing and controlling Palestinians, in the hope of forcing them permanently out of the area. When comparing the two communities’ ability to access water, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Eli Gilad, Israei farmer, on his date plantation in Area C, West Bank.

Inequality of resources

Israeli settlements in the West Bank enjoy unlimited access to water. Settlers in these communities can farm the land on a commercial scale, with their communities sporting lush green lawns and even swimming pools in some cases. Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, who are often forced to live in ramshackle encampments as a result of Israel’s policy of house demolitions, the settlements are made up of permanent concrete buildings. The largest settler community, Modi’in Illit, has a population of over 70,000 and has schools, shopping malls and medical centres inside its compound.

Whilst settler communities are thriving, Palestinians are struggling to meet their basic daily needs, let alone sustain businesses. In Area C, directly opposite Abu and the Al Haddidya community, lies the settlement of Ro’i. Ro’i produces a vast array of produce for international export, and even breeds exotic fish in an on-site aquarium. Compare this to Abu, whose farm sits on the same land – last year he was only able to produce three gallons of olive oil from his trees that are so weak from lack of water. Taking this example as representative of many others, the inequality of opportunity and resources between Palestinian and Israeli communities in the West Bank cannot be understated.

Abu’s son collecting water.

The future under annexation

At the end of May this year, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel, with coordination from the US, plans to move ahead with the formal annexation of the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Annexation will mean that Israel permanently claims sovereignty over the land, denying Palestinians citizenship, and therefore equality of rights. In practice, Israel already denies Palestinians citizenship in the occupied territories, however, annexation will mark an end to the idea that the situation is in any way temporary. For Palestinian communities, the announcement is the final devastating blow at the end of decades of struggle for self-determination under the Israeli authorities. Many Palestinians will likely be ejected from the annexed territories, the Palestinian Authority could collapse, and what remains of the Oslo Agreement will become obsolete.

In terms of the global response to the plans, the international community is ‘discouraging’ Israel from the annexation, but tougher penalties, such as sanctions, seem to have gained little support. At the time of writing, the planned commencement of annexation for July 1st seems to have been stalled temporarily, but the threat is still very real, with many Palestinians of the view that if it goes ahead, it will destroy any hope for a viable future state. In the meantime, life for Palestinians in Area C looks more precarious than ever.