Portuguese water company’s immoral collaboration with Israel

The Portugese company EPAL collaborates with Israeli water companies violating international law in the occupied West Bank. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

The management of Portuguese water company EPAL recently informed its workers about its collaboration with the Israeli national water company Mekorot on “water security issues.” An EPAL intern who recently visited the occupied West Bank reacted to the news by informing colleagues about how Israel is depriving Palestinians from water, referring to Amnesty International’s 27 October report on the situation. EPAL responded by sacking the intern within one hour.

In the report titled “Israel rations Palestinians to trickle of water,” Amnesty accused Israel of denying Palestinians the right to access adequate water by maintaining total control over the shared water resources and pursuing discriminatory policies.

EPAL is a subsidiary of the state water company Agua de Portugal. The company provides water to roughly three million people in 35 municipalities in Portugal, including the city of Lisbon. Meanwhile, Mekorot plays a key role in the implementation of Israel’s discriminatory water policies.

Mekorot was founded in 1937 by Levi Eshkol to support the development of Zionist settlements in British mandate Palestine. Eshkol held the position of managing director of Mekorot until 1951 and later became prime minister of the State of Israel. During his term, the West Bank was seized in the June 1967 War. Several military orders issued shortly after the war demonstrate Eshkol’s commitment to water for Israel. In August 1967, authority over West Bank water was transferred to Israel by Military Order 92. Two months later, Military Order 158 declared that no person in the West Bank is “allowed to establish or own or administer a water installation without a new official permit.” Permits can be refused without reason. A year later, Military Order 291 was issued, declaring all water resources in the West Bank to be public property of the State of Israel.

Mekorot became an important player in the water sector in the West Bank after 1982, when then Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon oversaw the transfer of ownership of all water supply systems in the West Bank. Mekorot paid a symbolic price of one shekel for Palestinian-owned assets of an estimated value of $5 million.

According to Amnesty International, Israel uses 80 percent of the water from the “mountain aquifer,” the only source of water for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Mekorot sells water at highly subsidized prices to Israeli settlers in the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Nearly 40 percent of water supplied to Palestinians in the West Bank is distributed by Mekorot at much higher, unsubsidized prices.

Israel’s illegal settlements receive a continuous supply of water, even in the hot summers when water is scarce. In 2000, a senior official who had worked for the Israeli Water Commission told the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem in telephone conversation that “Mekorot’s obligation is, first of all, to the Jewish settlements and Israeli citizens” (Thirsty for a Solution,” B’Tselem, July 2000). For example, in its October 2009 report “Water - A question of survival for Palestinians,” the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem reported that Mekorot reduced the supplies from 10,000 cubic meters per day to 6,000 cubic meters per day in Bethlehem this summer. In June, July and August, Mekorot cut water supplies from 5,000 cubic meters a day to 2,500 cubic meters a day in the Hebron municipality as increased demand from the Israeli settlements were prioritized over the needs of Palestinians. In response to the cuts in water supply, a coalition of Israeli, Palestinian and international non-governmental organizations coordinated the Breaking the Thirst water convoy to the villages in the south Hebron hills on 26 September.

International law limits the rights of an occupying power to utilize water resources of an occupied territory, and prohibits an occupying power from discriminating between residents of an occupied territory. However, Israel has illegally annexed water resources from the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967. Israel exercises full control over Palestinian water resources, and employs a discriminatory policy of water distribution. Mekorot plays a key role in Israel’s water policies and assists in its violation of international law.

According to European law, EPAL has the power to exclude an economic operator from bidding for a public contract or to reject any such bid where it is found that the individual or organization has committed an act of “grave misconduct” in the course of its business of profession. Directive 2004/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts is explicit about this. Like other European companies supporting Israel’s occupation, EPAL and its investors can expect increasing scrutiny and pressure to withdraw from agreements that undermine international law.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.