Making the Blooms Desert
By Jessica McCallin
Many people wonder why Israel won't give back the occupied territories in return for peace. One reason is that more than half of Israel's water supplies now come from the Mountain Aquifer and Jordan river basin, which are situated deep within them.
Jericho used to be one of Palestine's prime agricultural spots. An abundance of springs made the fertile land surrounding the ancient town famous for its oranges, bananas and strawberries. Now, all that is changing. Fields are drying up, crops are dying and farmers are being put out of work. The reason is simple: water. Israeli settlements get priority access to water and as they expand and new ones are built, the amount of water available to Palestinians decreases. Because of its strategic location between Jerusalem and Jordan, the Jericho region has been particularly affected.
It helps Israel divide the north and south of the West Bank from each other, and creates "facts on the ground" that preclude the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. But its water crises are repeated across the Palestinian Territories.
Since seizing the West Bank in 1967, Israel has illegally exploited the Mountain Aquifer and Jordan river basin. Many historians believe this has been the underlying reason for the invasion and occupation of the West Bank.
One of the first military orders of the occupation was the confiscation of almost all West Bank wells. Since then, drilling for new wells has been banned and quotas have been imposed on the existing ones. The amount of water allocated to Palestinians has been capped at 1967 levels, despite the subsequent growth in population.
Water has always been a source of conflict in the Middle East. Israeli attempts to divert water from the Jordan-Yarmouk river basin into the Negev were a key source of the 1967 war. And the Golan Heights, which Israel still refuses to give back to Syria, are also water-rich.
Today, Israel uses 79% of the Mountain Aquifer and all of the Jordan River Basin -- bar a small quantity that it sells to Palestinians in Gaza. The result is apartheid in all but name.
Israelis get 350 liters of water per person per day, Palestinians get just 70 liters. The minimal quantity of water recommended by the World Health Organisation is 100 liters.
When supplies run low during the summer months, the Israeli water company, Mekorot, simply shuts off the valves that supply Palestinian towns. This means settlers get their swimming pools topped up while Palestinian villages a few miles away run out of drinking water.
When tensions are high -- as they are now -- the situation becomes unbearable, especially for the 25 per cent of Palestinian villages that were never connected to a water supply.
Since the start of the Intifada, Israel has made it almost impossible for water tankers to enter Palestinian areas -- or for villagers to get to nearby wells. B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, says Israeli soldiers sometimes beat and humiliate tanker drivers or deliberately spill their water.
Yunis Muhammed 'Abd Tim Jabarin, a father of eight from a village in southern Hebron described how, in hot weather, "often we don't have water for ten to twenty days. In such situations, my wife and daughters ask the neighbours for water, but they can only give enough for drinking and cooking. As for washing, we have got used to showering once every five to seven days. The situation is intolerable, especially in the summer."
But towns with connections also face problems, according to Ayman Rabi, of the Palestinian Hydrological Group. "Settlers attack the Palestinians' water supply, severing pipes and switching off valves," he said. "They dump untreated sewage on Palestinian land, polluting wells and aquifers." The Israeli army has also routinely destroyed water supplies, an activity defined as a war crime.
Part of the problem is that the Oslo peace process tried to institutionalize Israel's theft of Palestinian water, and its discriminatory allocation system. Yehezkel Lein of B'Tselem said, "Comments from Israeli offices give the impression that Oslo transferred responsibility (for water supplies) to the Palestinian Authority.
"However, Israel continues to maintain almost total control over water in the occupied territories. Every new project, from drilling a well to laying pipes or building a reservoir, requires Israel's consent."
Israeli reluctance to relinquish control of West Bank water is not surprising. More than a quarter of its water supplies now come from the West Bank aquifer -- and over a third comes from the Jordan Basin. But it has no legal right to the water -- and it's not using it sustainably. Private swimming pools and green lawns are not a priority in desert areas.
Over-extraction from the Jordan river is the main reason the river flow has dropped nearly 90 per cent in the last 50 years. It is now just a small stream, too small to replenish the Dead Sea, which is also fast disappearing. Many hydrologists predict that it won't exist in 50 years. So how will the population of Israel and Palestine -- predicted to double in 25 years -- survive?
Israel likes to boast about how it made the desert bloom, how the original inhabitants of Palestine were "wasting" the land. But far from wasting the land, the Arabs lived within its constraints, in harmony with it. By making parts of its desert bloom, Israel has simply turned parts of Arab land into desert, unable to provide its inhabitants with water, the most fundamental pre-requisite for human life.
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