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Is Water Being Used As A Weapon In The West Bank?

In the Middle East, water is more than just a precious commodity -- it's a serious sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a French politician denounced Israel's policy as "water apartheid," a deeper l

Water tanks on Palestinian homes (Alan Mayers)
Water tanks on Palestinian homes (Alan Mayers)
Laurent Zecchini

TARQUMIYA - Does Israel's management of water resources in the West Bank constitute "water apartheid"? For Youssef Dabassi, the deputy mayor of Tarqumiya, a town of 20,000 people near Hebron, the question is academic. He says the situation speaks for itself: every ten days, the town's water faucets are opened for 70 hours, until it is the turn of the neighboring village.

When the faucets are open, residents must stock up on drinkable water, water for livestock, and, assuming there is any left, water for crops. "When we are connected, the lower parts of Tarqumiya benefit, but the next time, it is the village above that gets the water," Dabassi says. The rest of the time, residents must buy water from passing trucks equipped with mobile water cisterns, or else tap into their water tanks, which about 40 percent of homes are equipped with.

There is a clear difference in price: tap water costs 50 euro cents per cubic meter, while the same amount of water purchased from a privately owned truck costs about 5 euros. In the summer, says the deputy mayor, the situation becomes unbearable. "Mekorot – the Israeli water company – cuts the water because they favor the surrounding Jewish settlements. When we complain, they say, ‘We have checked – everything is normal." And the water stays off for days."

To understand what Dabassi means, all you need to do is take a drive through the hills. Along Highway 35, the exit to Tarqumiya runs parallel to the Jewish settlement of Telem. Behind, on a bumpy dirt road flanked by olive trees, is a pumping station that operates at a deafening level. The facility, which serves an estimated 20 villages, belongs to Mekorot. Although it is managed jointly with the Palestinian Authority, there is a major impediment: The underground pipeline has a protruding valve, which Khayni Damidi, an engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority, points to. "It serves as a bottleneck," he says, "with the flow regulated at the whim of the Israelis."

Illegal wells and pirate connections

Unlike the northern West Bank, where there are hundreds of illegal wells, particularly in the Jenin area, this is rare in the Hebron region (located in Zone C) – a part of the West Bank where, since the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel exercises an almost-absolute civil and security domination. "It would be crazy to try to dig a well in Zone C," says Damidi. "The army is everywhere."

Illegal connections to the water pipeline, however, are legion. According to Israeli expert Haim Gvirtzman, they represent a shortfall of 3.5 million cubic meters of water per year. Palestinians contest this figure, but do not deny the phenomenon. "We pay for all the water that comes to our villages, but of course, we do not receive the equivalent quantity because of the theft," Damidi says. "Overall, 50 percent of the water is not billed to our consumers."

On water, as it is with so many other subjects, the position of the Israelis and that of the Palestinians seems irreconcilable. Israeli authorities expressed indignation last month over the publication of a report by the French National Assembly, denouncing "a new water apartheid" in the occupied territories.

The author of the report, socialist MP Jean Glavany, noted that "the 450,000 settlers in the West Bank use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians." He says that, during droughts, the priority of water is given to settlers, and believes that the West Bank barrier enables the Israelis to control the underground water reserves. He also states that wells dug by the Palestinians are systematically destroyed by the Israeli army. "In the Middle East," he concludes, "water is more than a resource – it is a weapon."

Unfair distribution

As for the term "apartheid," Hebron mayor Khaled Osaily has his own opinion. "Of course it's apartheid – overall, we only get 50 liters of water per day, per person, while the Israelis can use up to 400 liters a day each."

These figures are contested by Israel. If the gap between Israeli and Palestinian water usage stood at 508 liters to 93 liters respectively in 1967, it stands today at 150 liters for the Israelis to 140 liters for the Palestinians, assures Professor Gvirtzman.

The mayor of Hebron acknowledges the truth of the Israelis accusations of the widespread illegal wells and pipeline connections, but said it should be put into perspective: "Pirate connections are everywhere, including Tel Aviv. As for illegal wells, they're on a limited scale and perfectly manageable."

Israel argues its good faith on the grounds that it has doubled the allocation of water to Palestinians as per the quotas established in the Oslo II agreement of 1995. But the argument fails to convince: not only was this agreement – which granted the Palestinians only 18 % of the "mountain-water" supply (the main water source shared between Israelis and Palestinians) supposed to be temporary, but the Palestinian population has doubled since then.

The refusal of Israel to accept a more equitable system is even less justified given that, according to Professor Gvirtzman, the Jewish state should have by 2013 five desalination factories to process water from the sea, which will enable it to balance its production and consumption of freshwater.

The question of water is one of the central issues in the negotiations over the creation of the future Palestinian state. If it doesn't get as much press as the issue of borders, it is as inseparable from the future state as is the status of Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees. It has become urgent to find a solution to equitably share this vital resource.

Letting this situation deteriorate runs the risk of seeing water-based micro-conflicts multiply around the West Bank, like so many metastasis that could set the West Bank ablaze. "The next war," warns Hebron mayor Osaily, "could be a war for water."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Alan Mayers

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