Israel’s policy of “water apartheid” made a rare appearance in the mainstream media over the past few weeks.
Martin Schulz, the European Parliament’s president, drew a furious response from some Israeli politicians when he spoke during an address to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset of how Israeli settlers receive far more water than indigenous Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Although Schulz cited figures mentioned to him by young people in Ramallah that were not accurate, the underlying problem is a very real one. A report published by the United Nations Human Rights Council last year stated that the average Israeli settler consumes as much as 400 liters per day, whereas a Palestinian in the West Bank has to make do with 73 liters and — in the case of many Bedouins — just 10 liters.
Despite that evidence, the Italian authorities have been happy to embrace Mekorot, the Israeli firm which diverts most of the water extracted from Palestinian springs to Israeli settlements.
Amnesty International has documented how Palestinians face severe rationing of water, particularly during the summer months, in order to ensure that Israeli settlers can still enjoy their swimming pools and floral displays (“Troubled Waters,” 27 October 2009 [PDF]).
At the Italy-Israel summit in Rome during December 2013, a cooperation agreement was signed between Mekorot and Acea, Italy’s largest water utility. Both firms undertook to examine how “cutting-edge technologies” for water management could be exchanged.
Palestine solidarity and public water campaigners have joined forces to oppose the agreement.
“Instrument of war”
“Water is used by the Israeli government and state companies like Mekorot as an instrument of war, oppression and power,” Paolo Carsetti from the Italian Forum of Water Movements told The Electronic Intifada. “This is why we actively support this campaign.”
Much of the attention has focused on the city of Rome, which has a majority stake in Acea. A letter signed by groups representing Palestinian farmers, youth and environmentalists argued that the proposed collaboration would flout the city authority’s “legal obligation not to provide recognition or assistance to Israeli violations of international law” (“Palestinians ask Rome not to sign with Mekorot,” Stop the Wall, 6 February 2014).
The cooperation between Acea and Mekorot takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing debate about how water should be managed in Italy.
In a 2011 referendum, 95 percent of voters rejected two laws aimed at privatizing water services (“EPSU welcomes the result of the Italian water referendum,” European Federation of Public Services Unions, 14 June 2011).
Since then, campaigners have continued the struggle to have the referendum results honored as authorities repeatedly sought to circumvent the public’s will.
In January this year, three days of protest were held in Rome to demand that services run by Acea be restored to public ownership. An end to Acea’s partnership with Mekorot were among the demands made by protesters.
As the protests got underway, the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce issued an appeal — via Twitter — that the two companies “keep up collaboration.” The tweet suggested that the partnership would improve the “wellbeing” of people in the Middle East, “even Palestinians.”
Mekorot has encountered stiff opposition to its investments in other parts of the world.
Just days after the Israel-Italy summit, Vitens, the largest water provider in the Netherlands, announced it was ceasing cooperation with Mekorot.
The Dutch government has been advising its country’s firms to stop investing in Israeli settlements in the West Bank (“Dutch water company terminates relationship with Mekorot following government advice,” BDS Movement, 13 December 2013).
A campaign has also been set up against Mekorot’s involvement in the construction of a water treatment plant in the Buenos Aires province of Argentina.
“In Argentina, our organization, together with social movements, has been campaigning against Mekorot for three years,” Tilda Rabi, president of the Federation of Argentinian-Palestinian Institutions, told The Electronic Intifada.
“Our struggle is against contributing financially to Israeli apartheid in Palestine and, at the same time, against the sale of our water to multinationals.”
Groups working to defend the universal right to water from the logic of profits and those working to support the Palestinian struggle are natural allies. With the recent cooperation agreement, Mekorot has its foot in the Italian door.
Campaigners in Italy want that door closed. They insist that water services be delivered in a way that doesn’t violate human rights.
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published on Common Dreams, Counterpunch, The Electronic Intifada, In These Times and Z Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @stephinrome.