An empty Palestinian agricultural reservoir
Jiftlik, Jordan Valley, West Bank, Palestine
© Amnesty International
An Israeli settlement swimming pool
Maaleh Adumim, West Bank, Palestine
© Angela Godfrey-Goldstein
“[It is] of vital importance not only to secure all water resources already feeding the country, but also to control them at their source.”
- Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization and the first President of Israel, at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference
“And when I talk about the importance to Israel’s security, this is not an abstract concept… It means that a housewife in Tel Aviv can open the tap and there’s water running to it, and it’s not been dried up because of a rash decision that handed over control of our aquifers to the wrong hands.”
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 17, 1998
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
- Toni Morrison
On October 18, The Atlantic published a lengthy article by Nancy Scola exploring the possible rationale for Texas Governor and terrible GOP Presidential nominee Rick Perry’s deep and abiding affinity for Israel. Scola, after citing potential reasons such as “the religious affinities of a conservative Christian” and “a shared fighting spirit” (in addition to “oil”, which is odd considering there’s no oil in Palestine) for Perry’s affection and admiration, suggests a different explanation:
In 2009, Perry told the Jerusalem Post that part of the Texas-Israel “connection that goes back many years” included the reality that “Israel has a lot we can learn from, especially in the areas of water conservation and semi-arid land.” It raised the possibility that at the root of Perry’s deep commitment and professed connection to Israel doesn’t lie in what Texas has in abundance — oil, faith, orneriness — but what it lacks: water.
Scola goes on to explain that, when he was Texas agriculture commissioner in the 1990’s, “Perry helped to lead the Texas-Israel Exchange, a program that aims to transfer knowledge between the two lands, where farming is a way of life but the water to do it with is often difficult to come by” and draws an environmental and hydrogeological parallel between the two regions. “Texas’ mountain aquifers have their equivalent in Israel’s karst aquifers,” she writes, before quoting UT professor and water expert David Eaton as saying, “Israel doesn’t have enough water, but they’ve figured out how to succeed.”
Among the ways Scola describes Israel’s victory over water scarcity through “a variety of technologies to try to squeeze the maximum possible water from dry land” are “projects focused on water reclamation — that is, using treated waste water, including sewage, to irrigate, cool, or in manufacturing processes.”
What Scola omits – and considering she devotes considerable space (nearly 2,000 words) to this issue, the omission can not be anything but willful and deliberate – is Palestine. In fact, the word itself never appears in the entire article, nor is the 44-year occupation and blockade that controls Palestinian lives each and every day.
The reason this omission is so glaring is because over 60% of Israel’s fresh water supply comes from Palestinian aquifers in the West Bank, illegally seized in 1967 after a conflict instigated by Israel and subsequently controlled exclusively by the Israeli government and military in occupied Palestine.
An October 2009 report by Amnesty International entitled “Troubled Waters – Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water” notes that, in 1967, “Israel forcibly took control of water resources and imposed significant changes in the area’s water sector. This included extracting large quantities of groundwater and diverting surface water for its own benefit, while preventing access by the local Palestinian population to these same resources.”
In 1982, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon transferred all West Bank water systems to the Israeli national water company Mekorot for the nominal price of one shekel. A decade later, the Oslo accords established a (so-called) Joint Water Management Committee, granting Israel a veto over all water resources, facilities and infrastructure in the West Bank.
Amnesty reveals that “[d]uring more than four decades of occupation of the Palestinian territories Israel has overexploited Palestinian water resources, neglected the water and sanitation infrastructure in the OPT, and used the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] as a dumping ground for its waste – causing damage to the groundwater resources and the environment” and that “Israeli policies and practices in the OPT, notably the unlawful destruction and appropriation of property, and the imposition of restrictions and other measures which deny the Palestinians the right to water in the OPT, violate Israel’s obligations under both human rights and humanitarian law.”
The report’s introduction states:
Lack of access to adequate, safe, and clean water has been a longstanding problem for the Palestinian population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Though exacerbated in recent years by the impact of drought-induced water scarcity, the problem arises principally because of Israeli water policies and practices which discriminate against the Palestinian population of the OPT. This discrimination has resulted in widespread violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the human rights to water, to adequate food and housing, and the right to work and to health of the Palestinian population.
The inequality in access to water between Israelis and Palestinians is striking. Palestinian consumption in the OPT is about 70 litres a day per person – well below the 100 litres per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) – whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption, at about 300 litres, is about four times as much. In some rural communities Palestinians survive on far less than even the average 70 litres, in some cases barely 20 litres per day, the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for emergency situations response.
Access to water resources by Palestinians in the OPT is controlled by Israel and the amount of water available to Palestinians is restricted to a level which does not meet their needs and does not constitute a fair and equitable share of the shared water resources. Israel uses more than 80 per cent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the OPT, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River of which Palestinians are denied any share.
The stark reality of this inequitable system is that, today, more than 40 years after Israel occupied the West Bank, some 180,000 – 200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities there have no access to running water and even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry. Water rationing is common, especially but not only in the summer months, with residents of different neighbourhoods and villages receiving piped water only one day every week or every few weeks. Consequently, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water at a much higher price and of often dubious quality. As unemployment and poverty have increased in recent years and disposable income has fallen, Palestinian families in the OPT must spend an increasingly high percentage of their income – as much as a quarter or more in some cases – on water.
In the Gaza Strip, the only water resource, the southern end of the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population but Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. The aquifer has been depleted and contaminated by overextraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 90-95 per cent of its water is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Waterborne diseases are common.
The report also documents how “[s]tringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of the water and sanitation situation in Gaza, which has reached crisis point,” causing both “water shortages and poor sanitation services” throughout occupied Palestine.
“Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967,” Amnesty reports, “it has denied its Palestinian inhabitants access to the water resources of Jordan River, preventing them from physically accessing the river banks and diverting the river flow upstream into Lake Kinneret/Tiberias/Sea of Galilee.” Furthermore, “As well as depriving the Palestinians of a crucial source of water, the drying up of the Jordan River has had a disastrous impact on the Dead Sea, which has seen the fastest drop in its water level to an unprecedented low.”
Consequently, without access to the Jordan, the Mountain Aquifer is the only remaining source of water for Palestinians in the West Bank. Still, despite having two other main water resources (Lake Kinneret/Tiberias/Sea of Galilee and the Coastal Aquifer), Israel “limits the amount of water annually available to Palestinians from the Mountain Aquifer to no more than 20 per cent, while it has continued to consistently overextract water for its own usage far in excess of the aquifer’s yearly sustainable yield. Moreover, much of Israel’s over-extraction is from the Western Aquifer, which provides both the largest quantity and the best quality of all the shared groundwater resources in Israel-OPT.”
Clearly, the miracle of Israeli ingenuity that so enamors Rick Perry and impresses Nancy Scola is not so much technological advancement as it is illegal military occupation and heavily-armed dominance over Palestinian land and resources.
Yet, Israel not only appropriates and exploits Palestinian water supplies (“regardless of the consequences that this disproportionate and unfair division has for the Palestinian population in the OPT and its impact on Palestinians’ human rights,” says Amnesty) through its past and continual colonization, illegal annexation of land via the Apartheid Wall (which has isolated at least 39 groundwater wells from their Palestinian communities with more wells threatened for demolition in the Wall’s “buffer zone”), and ethnic cleansing of indigenous populations, it also deliberately destroys what resources Palestinians still have.
During Israel’s three-week Gaza massacre in the winter of 2008-9, the Israeli military “destroyed more than 30 kilometres of water networks – the equivalent of more than double the width of the strip at its widest – and 11 water wells,” reports the Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene group (EWASH), a coalition of 30 leading humanitarian organizations operating in occupied Palestine.
Israeli forces also “carried out a strike against a wall of one of the raw sewage lagoons of the Gaza wastewater treatment plant, which caused the outflow of more than 200,000 cubic metres of raw sewage onto neighbouring farmland,” reported the UN Fact-Finding Mission. The Goldstone Report continued,
The circumstances of the strike suggest that it was deliberate and premeditated. The Namar wells complex in Jabaliyah consisted of two water wells, pumping machines, a generator, fuel storage, a reservoir chlorination unit, buildings and related equipment. All were destroyed by multiple air strikes on the first day of the Israeli aerial attack. The Mission considers it unlikely that a target the size of the Namar wells could have been hit by multiple strikes in error. It found no grounds to suggest that there was any military advantage to be had by hitting the wells and noted that there was no suggestion that Palestinian armed groups had used the wells for any purpose.
The Mission determined that this assault (“carried out…unlawfully and wantonly”) on water facilities constituted “a violation of the grave breaches provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” explaining, “Unlawful and wanton destruction which is not justified by military necessity amounts to a war crime” and that such deliberate destruction “was carried out to deny sustenance to the civilian population, which is a violation of customary international law and may constitute a war crime.”
Nearly three years after the bombardment of Gaza, the consequences of such war crimes are still devastating.
In March 2011, EWASH notes, “the Khuza’a municipality warehouse was hit by an airstrike destroying a large quantity of essential water and sanitation materials and spare parts to the value of over US$ 60 000. In April, the Al-Mintar water reservoir in Al-Quba area of Gaza City was hit leaving 30 000 people in eastern Gaza city with no water for three days.” In mid-July 2011, “an Israeli airstrike destroyed an agricultural well in the eastern part of Beit Hanoun,” injuring seven civilians including four children and three women. “The strike also caused damage to nine water tanks belonging to five households in the adjacent neighbourhood, serving 59 people,” the report continues.
Whereas the destruction of water facilities in Gaza is the result of Israeli policies of deliberate deprivation and collective punishment, Israeli military actions in the continually colonized West Bank serve a different purpose. Amnesty reports, “[t]he Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian water facilities – rainwater harvesting and storage cisterns, agricultural pools and spring canals – on the grounds that they were constructed without permits from the army is often accompanied by other measures that aim to restrict or eliminate the presence of Palestinians from specific areas of the West Bank.”
In the past two years, EWASH has documented “the destruction of 100 water, sanitation and hygiene structures, 44 cisterns, 20 toilets and sinks, 28 wells. This year alone, 20 cisterns have been destroyed,” The Guardian reports. “Most of this is happening in Area C, which is under full Israeli military control.” Israeli Occupation soldiers often shoot at vitally-needed Palestinian water tanks.
On December 14, 2010, Israeli occupation authorities demolished eleven water cisterns dug by Bedouin in the South Hebron Hills. Ha’aretz reported that “[t]he move, intended to push Bedouin off IDF firing ranges, left dozens of families in the region with no water for their sheep and livestock.”
In March 2011, AFP reported that “Israeli troops have destroyed three water wells belonging to Palestinian villagers living near a sprawling Jewish settlement outside Hebron.” Later that same month, Israeli authorities destroyed “an ancient water well and reservoir southeast of Bethlehem used by Palestinian Bedouin shepherds as their main sources of water.”
On July 5, 2011, it was reported that “a convoy of Israeli Army, civil administration, and border police arrived in the Palestinian village of Amniyr accompanying a flat bed truck with a front end loader and a backhoe. Israeli settlers having a picnic at the settlement outpost next to the Susiya archaeological site looked on as the army destroyed nine large tanks of water and a tent.” It was the fifth time this year.
Just one week ago, WAFA, the Palestinian News and Info Agency, reported, “The Israeli authorities Thursday handed a number of Palestinian farmers demolition orders of several water wells and green houses and stopped construction work of rehabilitating an agricultural road in an area in Kufr Al-Deek, a town in Salfit,” according the town’s mayor.
Drilling new wells and rehabilitating existing wells is prohibited in the West Bank without the authorized consent of the Israeli occupiers and Mekorot, Israel’s National Water Company, routinely disrupts the flow of water to Palestinian land that relies on irrigation. Meanwhile, as Palestinians are “denied access to an equitable share of the shared water resources and are increasingly affected by the lack of adequate water supplies, Israeli settlers face no such challenges – as indicated by their intensive-irrigation farms, lush gardens and swimming pools. The 450,000 Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million.”
In her Atlantic column, Nancy Scola addresses none of these issues. Instead, she notes that many state governments in the U.S. have business partnerships with the State of Israel, noting that “the exchange between the state of Texas and the state of Israel is generally considered the oldest such relationship, and it is certainly one of the most robust.”
Scola also quotes from a 1996 op-ed Rick Perry wrote for the Austin American-Statesman, in which he “bragged about teaming up with Israel, ‘a country known for using technology to turn a desert into an agricultural oasis of productivity.'” This pernicious myth of “Desert-Bloomism“, articulated by Perry, is allowed to stand on its own, unchallenged, in Scola’s article.
While Scola suggests Rick Perry’s love affair with Israel may be based on a shared lack of water, it is abundantly clear that the common ground between the Texas governor and the Israeli government has far more to do with a shared lack of humanity.