On World Water Day, support the academic boycott call

Palestinians live on disparately fewer liters of water per day than Jewish Israelis. (Wesam Saleh/MaanImages)

Today on World Water Day, we call on those concerned with water rights to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions call to hold Israel responsible for its violations of international law.

We at the water rights and advocacy group LifeSource specifically support the call made on the University of Johannesburg to terminate its cooperation with Ben-Gurion University. This call has been made by the University of Johannesburg’s Student Representative Council, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and more than 300 South African academics.

LifeSource is a Palestinian collective working with communities on the ground so that we all understand our human rights to water and sanitation and our options for taking action to resist Israel’s colonization of Palestinian water resources. Globally we educate communities about Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights to water and sanitation, and organize to put real pressure on Israel to comply with international law by encouraging individuals and organizations to leverage and align their resources with their values.

The UN Human Rights Committee voted on 5 August 2010 and found Israel guilty of directly violating Palestinians’ human rights to water and sanitation, in direct contravention of human rights conventions Israel signed in 1991. But international law today is very weak, and even after the UN Human Rights Committee found Israel guilty of human rights violations, there is no way to use international law alone to enforce Israel to respect human rights. Looking at Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights to water and sanitation and the failure of international law to protect Palestinians, we see the imperative as members of a global community to leverage our people power to ensure that human rights are protected for everyone.

We are heartened by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) initiative being undertaken by our Palestinian brothers and sisters, as we are greatly inspired by the long and humanistic struggle that South Africans continue to wage against the former racist regime of apartheid and heal the scars that remain.

As stated in the letter by the Student Representative Council on 7 March, a decision by the University of Johannesburg to terminate its relationship with Ben-Gurion University would be a major landmark in the global struggle for human rights.

The agreement in question between the universities centers on research of a new method for water purification. We understand that it will be difficult for some of the global supporters of our water justice campaign to understand why we are in favor of ending an agreement that develops improved water technology, so today, on World Water Day, we will explain.

While in general we applaud scientific advancement that allows us to live in better harmony with our environment, it would be false to try to place water purification research in Israel in some kind of social or political vacuum. The fact is that access to water and sanitation in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is based upon a discriminatory system, which privileges Israeli institutions while denying Palestinians their basic human rights to water and sanitation. Palestinians are not suffering human rights violations due to a lack of technology or scientific advancement. Palestinians are suffering because of the Israeli occupation that will not allow them to enjoy their full rights to their groundwater and surface water, and will not even allow them to construct facilities for treating wastewater. We are committed to taking nonviolent action to bring these and other human rights violations to an end.

Palestinian water rights denied

Israel prevents Palestinians from developing normal water infrastructure and from continuing to use the natural resources that Palestinians have been using for centuries. According to consumption figures from the Israeli Hydrological Service and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Palestinians are limited to merely 17 percent of the water under the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, even though more than 80 percent of the rain that recharges the shared groundwater falls over the West Bank. Israelis consume on average more than 3.5 times as much water per capita than Palestinians (see B’Tselem, “The gap in water consumption between Palestinians and Israelis”). Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley export water-intensive crops to Europe, virtually exporting an amount of water equal to about one quarter of the total amount of water that 2.5 million Palestinians have for domestic purposes, agriculture and industry — while many Palestinians survive on just twenty liters of water per person per day! Meanwhile, springs located amid Palestinian farmland between Palestinian villages continue to be stolen by illegal Israeli settlers with the support of the Israeli military, such as those at Nabi Saleh in the northern Ramallah district and Wadrahal in the Bethlehem district, just to name two recent examples where the theft is current or only recently transpired.

Discriminatory policies in wastewater infrastructure development are also appalling, and particularly relevant to understanding why we are getting behind this call on the University of Johannesburg to terminate its cooperation with Ben-Gurion University.

The biggest obstacle to wastewater treatment in the West Bank is Israeli negotiators, Israeli policy-makers and the Israeli military. The Palestinian Authority has funds ready from the international donor community for the development of wastewater infrastructure, the plans are ready, everything is ready — but Israeli permission is denied. Even one time, in a 15-year window, when Israeli permission was given for the Salfit Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Israeli military interfered and shut down the project (see World Bank, “Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development” [PDF]). Israel paid the German contractors an apology worth one million shekels for shutting down the project after it had been fully permitted. Meanwhile, the rest of the wastewater projects applied for from 1996 on, still were not permitted by 2010, again, despite millions of dollars of funds at the ready, leaving only one completed wastewater treatment facility in the West Bank, one that was built in the tiny window after the Oslo accords before the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee was formed.

Today in Gaza, Israel’s blockade is preventing the import of building materials, spare parts and energy needed for even the most basic treatment of wastewater. Even PVC for the pipe factory is prohibited. Chemicals for desalinating the brackish water that comes from the ground are prohibited. Several sewage basins built as a project of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Rafah, along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, were lined with slabs from the cement wall that once existed along the border between Gaza and Egypt and which was dismantled when Hamas came to power. In Beit Lahiya, in the north of the Gaza Strip, a foreseeable collapse of a sewage basin caused five residents of the village Umm al-Nasser to drown to death in sewage, because materials needed were denied entry despite desperate calls on Israel from local authorities and the UN to avert this disaster. The UN and other agencies continue to invest hundreds upon thousands of hours in negotiating with Israeli authorities for the entrance of certain priority materials, including the most basic spare parts and building supplies needed for safe water and sewage infrastructure.

For Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite paying equal or higher taxes (for not serving in the army), sewage infrastructure is not a given. Some Palestinian neighborhoods of Lydd, for example, do not have basic sewage pipes, while Jewish Israelis who have moved to the city in recent years receive necessary sewage infrastructure.

Israeli academia entangled with discriminatory regime

The Israeli colonial regime which continues to take more Palestinian land and water resources and deny Palestinians their most basic human rights has let its politics of appropriating Palestinian land for the Jewish state prevent the construction of the most normal and basic water and sanitation projects. We call on departments at Ben-Gurion University and ultimately the university itself to condemn and distance itself from Israel’s water policies, which are directly responsible for grave human rights abuses. Short of this, it is difficult to see how research at Ben-Gurion University and the University of Johannesburg’s participation in any research could achieve anything less than the wholesale legitimization of an illegal and discriminatory system. We hope that the campaign calling for a severing of the University of Johannesburg’s links with Israeli institutions will succeed in putting pressure on the State of Israel to allow Palestinians to enjoy their full rights, including their rights to water and sanitation.

There are some who would like us to overlook the direct connections between Ben-Gurion University’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research (BIDR), BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (ZIWR) and BGU’s Microalgal Biotechnology Laboratory (MBL) with the Jewish National Fund, which has expropriated vast properties belonging to millions of Palestinians exclusively for persons of “Jewish nationality,” and Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest “private” military contractor. Some prefer to highlight positive aspects of one or more of these departments.

However, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is not about penalizing some universities or departments and rewarding others. It is about ending the 44-year military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syrian Golan Heights; demanding respect for all UN-sanctioned Palestinian rights, including the right to water and sanitation and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and homes occupied in 1948; and about resisting the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem.

These are long-term goals. We will need to make some sacrifices in the meantime. Despite any perceived benefits from the research agreement in question or any endeavor in any Israeli university, we believe that the PACBI-led and South Africa-inspired campaign for boycotting Israeli academic and cultural institutions is one of the tools that will bring Palestinians their full rights. Boycott, including the academic and cultural boycott, is a peaceful and effective way to put real and sustained pressure on Israel to comply with the norms we have established for our global community, including a respect for human rights and international law.

Susan Koppelman is a water rights advocate from the US who has been living and working in Palestine for the past five years. She currently serves as International Campaigns Consultant for LifeSource, a Palestinian collective working to end the Israeli colonization of Palestinian water resources.
Nidal Hatim is a local campaign organizer with LifeSource and a Palestinian writer based in the village of Batir in the occupied West Bank. He writes regularly for the Arabic language online magazine
al-Hiwar al-Motmadin.