A few days ago, I was handing out bottles of water within a few miles of Israel/Palestine’s only major river, the Jordan.
The village of Al Fasayel lies in a desert landscape, a contrast to nearby Israeli settlements, which have access to almost unlimited water. Al Fasayel itself has not had water on tap for over seven weeks.
The Jordan Valley is an area of stunning natural and rugged beauty. The mountainsides are barren, the illegal settlements in the valley floor dark, fertile green. But the valley is also an area of discrimination and grinding poverty.
The first time I and other participants in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) visited Al Fasayel, we were offered glasses of sweet tea. It was only when we went outside to talk with the children that they showed us a tap that has been dry for almost two months.
EAPPI brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers provide protective presence, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. We had come to the Jordan Valley to visit some of the region’s most vulnerable communities.
Lack of access to water has long been a problem for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. Since it occupied the West Bank in 1967, Israel has denied them access to the waters of the Jordan River and severely limited their access to other local aquifers. The Oslo Accords of 1993 merely consolidated Israel’s control over the West Bank’s water resources. Israel now places severe restrictions on Palestinian usage.
Palestinian water consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is only around 70 liters a day per person, whereas the same figure for Israelis is around 300 liters, according to a report by Amnesty International. Some Palestinians survive on barely 20 liters per day, the necessary amount calculated by the World Health Organization for short-term survival in emergency situations.
The 450,000 Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements use as much or more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians in the same area. The World Bank reported in 2009 that Palestinian access to water is in decline.
Near Al Fasayel lies the Bedouin encampment of Ein Al Hilweh. The 25 families living in these modest tents have to collect their water from a well an hour’s drive away. The army sometimes bans them from using the road, and the trip to collect water may bring a fine of several hundred shekels. The settlers, who live in well-built houses with running water, also regularly harass the Bedouins.
Around 9,600 Israelis now live in the illegal settlements that blanket much of the Jordan Valley. They grow a variety of fruits and vegetables for export to Europe, particularly by the Israeli company Agrexco.
Experts estimate that with their artificial irrigation systems, these settlements use over half of all water consumed in the West Bank. This places intense strain on the valley’s scarce water resources, says George Rishmawi of the Near East Council of Churches.
“Israel is trying to isolate the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank and forcibly remove its Palestinian inhabitants by denying them access to water,” he says.
Much of the sewage from Palestinian towns goes untreated because Israel does not allow the Palestinian authority to build new treatment plants. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the Israeli army frequently smashes up water infrastructure built by Palestinians — even rainwater harvesting systems.
We contacted a local businessman, Arab Al-Shorafa, who runs the Yanabee, a company that sells bottled water. He was also the mayor of the Palestinian town of Beita. We had reached him using the phone number on the back of one of the company’s water bottles, and told him about the situation in Al Fasayel.
Immediately he offered to give more than 700 liters of bottled water, providing we could collect them from the factory that evening. He phoned back later, offering to quadruple the number.
We agreed to collect and deliver the first batch that night. We drove to the factory and loaded a van. Al-Shorafa met us and promised to provide more water and the truck for another delivery the next day.
We drove back to Fasayel. In the dark, we distributed the water to the families as they appeared through the darkness with their children. The next morning, with temperatures in the mid-90s, we delivered another batch.
Tony Blair, envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, recently visited Fasayel. He managed to persuade the Israeli authorities to rescind a demolition order on the local school. But the village’s taps remain dry.
Our deliveries to Fasayel have provided enough water for each family in that village for a week. But Al-Shorafa’s act of charity merely underscores the fact that ensuring access to adequate food and water is the duty of the occupying power.
Many locals believe that Israel’s failure to fulfill this is part of a strategy to drive them from their ancestral lands. As we delivered bottles of water in the searing heat, we could understand their point of view.