Israel actively supports theft of Palestinian water, says new UN report

Israeli soldier documents Hyundai equipment destroying resevoir

Israeli forces destroy a water resevoir near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, June 2011.

Najeh Hashlamoun APA images

The Israeli government has turned a blind eye — and often actively supported — the illegal takeover of water springs located on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank by Israeli settlers, according to a new report released by the United Nations’ leading humanitarian body.

“All the development of these tourist sites is being done with the support of [the] state budget. The main mechanism is funds that are being allocated primarily, but not only, by the regional councils of the settlements,” explained Yehezkel Lein, head of the Research and Analysis Unit at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a media briefing on 13 March.

“The Binyamin Regional Council is the most active in this regard,” Lein said, referring to the a local authority that brings together more than forty Israeli settlements. “Now the regional councils are being funded by the central government [through] the ministry of interior, so we can see the line.”

In a report titled “How Dispossession Happens: The Humanitarian Impact of the Takeover of Palestinian Water Springs by Israeli Settlers,” OCHA identifies 56 water springs in the vicinity of Israeli settlements that have either been entirely taken over, or are currently at risk of being taken over, by Israeli settlers.

Four of the springs are located in Area B of the West Bank; under the Oslo accords, this zone is defined as being under civil control of the Palestinian Authority but under Israeli military control. The others are located in Area C, which is under full Israeli military and administrative control. According to the report, 84 percent of the springs have been recognized by Israel’s Civil Administration (the body overseeing the occupation of the West Bank) as being on land privately owned by Palestinians.

Intimidation and trespassing

The report finds that the main methods used by Israeli settlers to take control of the springs have been intimidation, trespassing, theft and building without the required permits, all of which are illegal under both international and Israeli military laws. The systematic failure of the Israeli authorities to stop these practices and protect the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank points to Israel’s cooperation with the settler movement, OCHA finds.

“All of the process of the takeover and the development of this tourist infrastructure has been carried out with the acquiescence and sometimes the active support of the Israeli authorities. The springs are not an exception to the general rule of lack of law enforcement regarding settler violence,” Lein explained at the press briefing.

Turning off Road 60 — the main highway that runs north-south through the occupied West Bank — near the Israeli settlements of Eli and Shiloh, visitors are immediately greeted by a sign reading “Ha Gvura Spring” in both English and Hebrew. A few hundred meters further along a bumpy dirt road, two water pools, a picnic table and wooden changing cabins are prominently displayed, surrounded by a grove of olive trees.

The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority has erected signs at the site, warning visitors against slipping and jumping into the pools. A smaller sign, fixed to a large boulder nearby, also reads: “To the memory of our brothers, sons of Eli, who fell for the building of the land.”

“Before the 1970s, people used to drink from this water because there wasn’t a water network. People also came here to send the water back to their villages for many other uses. Farmers and herders used to come to this area for their animals to drink,” explained 58-year-old Jamal Daraghme, a farmer and the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Luben Sharqiyye.

“Before the settlers started to control this area, people used to come to plant other crops to maintain their livelihood. People came with their families and they maintained the land using this water,” Daraghme added.

“This is like Antarctica”

Daraghme said that Palestinians own the land upon which the “Ha Gvura Spring” is located. Despite this, they don’t have access to the area without prior security coordination with the Israeli authorities; in recent years, Palestinian farmers have only been able to access the land once a year, for the annual olive harvest.

“If we request any coordination to do any activity other than harvesting, we always receive the answer of no. Unfortunately also during the olive harvest, most of the farmers leave the product of the harvest on the trees because they only have a very short and limited time [on the land],” Daraghme said.

A few minutes after arriving at the water spring last Tuesday, the head of security at the nearby Israeli settlement of Eli, Aviad Cohen, appeared. In an argument with Daraghme, Cohen said that Palestinians have never been banned from the area and can use the spring whenever they want.

“I’m the head of security for three and a half years. I never stopped any Palestinian to come here,” Cohen said, adding, “They don’t need to take permission from me.”

When asked why he was using lands that are owned by Palestinians, Cohen answered: “We like nature. We are developing because the Jews love the land of Israel and we like to develop it. We plant trees. We love the fountains. We love the springs. We love this country. This is our country and we like it, so we develop it. My narrative is this is Israel. This is a private Palestinian land in the country of Israel.”

He added, “There’s no one side of international law in this place. It’s very, very ambivalent. From who did we conquer this land? It’s occupied from whom? Jordan left. So this is like Antarctica.”

Stark inequalities

Israel controls all Palestinian access to water in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, this means that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer — the sole source of underground water in the area, which is supposed to be shared equally between Israelis and Palestinians — and all the surface water available from the Jordan River.

Today, the disparity in water consumption between Israelis and Palestinians is stark. According to data presented by Amnesty International in 2009, the 450,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank “use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million” (“Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water”).

It is estimated that Palestinians consume approximately 70 liters of water daily per person, well below the 100 liters recommended by the World Health Organization. By contrast, Israeli daily water consumption is averaged at 300 liters, or approximately four times more than Palestinians. In some areas of the West Bank, Palestinian water consumption is as low as 20 liters per day.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, there were approximately 191,200 Palestinians (living in 134 villages throughout the West Bank) without access to a running-water network in 2008. At the same time, 190,000 Palestinians lived in communities in which the water system was very limited (“Villages not connected to a water network,” 6 May 2010).

Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement have also forced many communities in the West Bank to purchase water from local companies. Often, the water is sold at prices three to six times more expensive than the price of water supplied through the water network, and the quality of the water is poor.

“Israel’s policy regarding water supply in the West Bank is illegal and discriminates on racial grounds. It flagrantly breaches international law which requires Israel to ensure proper living conditions for the local population and to respect the Palestinians’ human rights, including the right to receive a sufficient quantity of water to meet their basic needs,” B’Tselem found.

Consolidating control

According to OCHA’s Yehezkel Lein, the takeover of Palestinian water springs serves multiple purposes, including generating revenues for the settlements, legitimizing the settlement enterprise and, most importantly, consolidating Israeli control over physical space in the West Bank and in particular in Area C.

“Settlements are built up on the hilltops mainly and the springs are located on the bottom of the valley, so they are providing an additional dimension in terms of controlling that area. The space in between these different spots has been rendered off-limits for Palestinian use because of the intimidation and the fear of the settler presence in that area,” Lein explained.

At more than 70 percent of the springs included in OCHA’s study, Israeli settlers have built up the areas surrounding the springs into tourist attractions by renovating water pools, and building picnic tables, benches and shading structures, for instance. This, according to Lein, suggests that the sites are being used as a way to expand the reach of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“The majority of the springs were also given a Hebrew name. This gives a kind of symbolic dimension to the appropriation over the place,” he added.

“This development of springs is part of a larger trend that we have seen throughout the West Bank [which] entails the development of the tourist infrastructure of settlements. You may have seen in the last few years a lot of archaeological sites, museums, biking [paths], guesthouses and bed and breakfast facilities. The development of the springs is an additional element within this larger trend [and] overall, they are contributing to the entrenchment of the settlement enterprise.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at