The Occupation of Water

The legacy of Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories has been systematic human rights violations on a mass scale. One of its most devastating consequences is the impact of Israel’s discriminatory policies on Palestinians’ access to adequate supplies of clean and safe water.

Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, in June 1967, the Israeli military authorities consolidated complete power over all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). 50 years on, Israel continues to control and restrict Palestinian access to water in the OPT to a level which neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources.

In November 1967 the Israeli authorities issued Military Order 158, which stated that Palestinians could not construct any new water installation without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army. Since then, the extraction of water from any new source or the development of any new water infrastructure would require permits from Israel, which are near impossible to obtain. Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation continue to suffer the devastating consequences of this order until today. They are unable to drill new water wells, install pumps or deepen existing wells, in addition to being denied access to the Jordan River and fresh water springs. Israel even controls the collection of rain water throughout most of the West Bank, and rainwater harvesting cisterns owned by Palestinian communities are often destroyed by the Israeli army. As a result, some 180 Palestinian communities in rural areas in the occupied West Bank have no access to running water, according to OCHA. Even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry.

While restricting Palestinian access to water, Israel has effectively developed its own water infrastructure and water network in the West Bank for the use of its own citizens in Israel and in the settlements – that are illegal under international law. The Israeli state-owned water company Mekorot has systematically sunk wells and tapped springs in the occupied West Bank to supply its population, including those living in illegal settlements with water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes. While Mekorot sells some water to Palestinian water utilities, the amount is determined by the Israeli authorities. As a result of continuous restrictions, many Palestinian communities in the West Bank have no choice but to purchase water brought in by trucks at a much high prices ranging from 4 to 10 USD per cubic metre. In some of the poorest communities, water expenses can, at times, make up half of a family’s monthly income.

The Israeli authorities also restrict Palestinians’ access to water by denying or restricting their access to large parts of the West Bank. Many parts of the West Bank have been declared “closed military areas”, which Palestinians may not enter, because they are close to Israeli settlements, close to roads used by Israeli settlers, used for Israeli military training or protected nature reserves.

Israeli settlers living alongside Palestinians in the West Bank – in some cases just a few hundred meters away – face no such restrictions and water shortages, and can enjoy and capitalize on well-irrigated farmlands and swimming pools.

In Gaza, some 90-95 per cent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Israel does not allow water to be transferred from the West Bank to Gaza, and Gaza’s only fresh water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population and is being increasingly depleted by over-extraction and contaminated by sewage and seawater infiltration.

The resulting disparity in access to water between Israelis and Palestinians is truly staggering. Water consumption by Israelis is at least four times that of Palestinians living in the OPT. Palestinians consume on average 73 litres of water a day per person, which is well below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended daily minimum of 100 litres per capita. In many herding communities in the West Bank, the water consumption for thousands of Palestinians is as low as 20 litres per person a day, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). By contrast, an average Israeli consumes approximately 300 litres of water a day.

50 years on, it is time for the Israeli authorities to put an end to policies and practices which discriminate against Palestinians in the OPT and to address their desperate need for water security. The Israeli authorities must lift the restrictions currently in place which deny millions of Palestinians access to sufficient water to meet their personal and domestic needs as well as to enjoy their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living.

A mural painted on the wall of a disused pumping station beside route 90, the main highway which stretches the length of the Jordan Valley. The writing reads, ‘Our water is our life so let’s preserve it”. In the Jordan Valley numerous springs and wells have been made redundant as the Mountain Aquifer on the western edge of the valley is increasingly exploited by the Israeli-state owned company Mekorot. © Amnesty International

Devastating toll on communities in the Jordan valley

In September 2017 Amnesty International researchers met with residents of the Jordan Valley and witnessed first-hand the catastrophic impact the water restrictions have had on people’s daily lives.

Ihab Saleh, a squash and cucumber farmer living in Ein al-Beida, a Palestinian village of about 1,600 people located in the northern part of the West Bank, is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by Israeli water restrictions. Over the past 25 years he has seen the local spring gradually dry up after the Israeli company Mekorot drilled two wells near the neighbouring Palestinian community of Bardala, to serve Mehola, an Israeli settlement. The amount of water the Israeli authorities allocate to the village has been decreasing over the years, he says, and has been fully cut off on numerous occasions. Despite an agreement to compensate the Palestinian villages of Bardala and Ein al-Beida, since the mid-1970s, Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water available to both communities.

Ihab Saleh recounted to Amnesty International researchers how, at the beginning of September 2017, Israeli authorities cut the water supply to the village for five days claiming that residents had taken more than allotted to them through unauthorized means. Ihab’s crops died due to this cut-off, with damages to his business of around 10,000 NIS (approximately 2,820 USD). He says there was no notice before the supply was cut, and there was no drinking water for any of the residents who had to travel five km to a neighbouring village to bring water in trucks. © Amnesty International “In this village we want peace, whatever the Palestinian Authority says – we do. Whatever the Israeli army says – we do…. all we want to do is farm our land,” he told Amnesty International.

In addition to the farming villages, many Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley face severe restrictions as a consequence of Israel’s control of Palestinian natural water resources. Often the land they live on is designated by Israel as a “closed military area”. Not only is their access to water limited, they also live under the constant threat of forced evictions through demolition orders on their homes and properties.

Two families living beside highway 90 near the village of Ein Al-Beida have had their houses and property destroyed twice in the last two years. Most recently, in December 2016, the Israeli army destroyed two home structures and all of the water tanks belonging to the families.

In al-Auja, a village of about 5,200 people, 10 kilometres north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, the situation is much the same. In 1972, Mekorot sunk a well and established a pumping station, close to the Wadi Auja spring. According to residents, the spring used to provide a plentiful supply of water to the village and surrounding agricultural land via a series of irrigation channels.

Due to water shortages, farmers in Al-Auja were forced to diversify from their traditional livelihoods, and now grow crops that are less water-intensive and also less profitable. While in the past they grew mainly citrus fruit and were capable of exporting them, they rely now on less water intensive vegetable crops such as zucchini, cucumber and squash, which can sustain a cultivation period of three to four months through the winter season. Many residents of Al-Auja have also been forced to find work in farms located in three neighbouring Israeli settlements, which have unrestricted access to water.

Israeli settlements access to water

Qais Nasaran a store owner from Al-Jiftlik, a village with an estimated population of approximately 4,700, located in the northern Jordan Valley, used to farm a small plot of land. After his well had dried up, he was forced to find a new way to make a living. He now runs a grocery store.

The store is located in an old pump house for a well which was sunk in 1966 with permission from the Jordanian authorities who controlled the West Bank at the time. A year later, after Israel occupied the Palestinian territories, the Israeli authorities stopped Qais Nasaran’s family from using it. There was water in the well until 2014 when it finally dried up. Qais explained how, each year, when the well was full, the Israeli military would check to see no one was using it.

Qais still owns a cistern on his land, but cannot always afford to fill it as it costs around 8,000 NIS (approximately 2,278 USD). He buys his water from a landowner in the Jordan Valley.

For Mustafa Al-Farawi, a date farmer from Al-Jiftlik, the situation is similar. The amount of water available from the well on his land has been decreasing steadily over the years.

He explains that, in the 1980’s, the well would provide enough water to irrigate an area of 1,000 acres, and provide water for the animals, as well as supporting the family. Now the majority of water used for his date farm has to be bought and transported with a water tank from a spring 7km away, which is the only spring that can still be accessed by Palestinians.

In recent years, Mustafa wanted to sink a new well at a different location that would guarantee more water. He says that an engineer came to check and there was water closer to ground level on another part of the farm’s land. He applied for drilling rights but the Israeli authorities denied the application. Eventually he decided to sink the well anyway without permission, but the Israeli army came and prevented him from doing so. He was told that sinking the well was against Israeli military orders and the construction was halted.

The village of Furush Beit Dajan, in the northern West Bank with a population of about 930, used to be a producer of citrus fruit. From the mid 1990’s, farmers have had to diversify their crops due to insufficient water supplies.

The villagers say that they used to have an abundance of water but in recent years the wells have been supplying less and less. Residents of the village mentioned that the aquifer is being exhausted by Israeli wells used to supply the neighbouring Israeli settlements of Hamra and Mehora. According to Azim Mifleh, a farmer from the village, Israeli wells started pumping in the vicinity of the village in the 1970’s and slowly the local wells lost their efficiency. Since the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995, Israel has extracted far in excess of the agreed quantity of water from the Eastern Aquifer.

Azim Mifleh, a farmer and coordinator for the Agricultural Development Association (PARC) from Furush Bei Dajan, says he used to have 800 trees on his land; mostly lemon and grapefruit. Now he only has two trees left next to the house.

There are five water wells in the vicinity of Furush Beit Dajan village- all are privately owned by Palestinians. According to residents from the village, they have suffered drastic decreases in their output of water due to Israeli wells being sunk in the area to supply the settlement of Hamra, which farms an extensive area of land. The settlement of Hamra has a 100 acre date farm and also harvests water-intensive crops such as bananas and citrus fruits.

The right to water has been recognized as being derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, and therefore implicitly contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other instruments. The right to water includes availability of sufficient water for personal and domestic uses, physical access within or in the immediate vicinity of each household, affordability, and adequate quality of water. States must prioritize, as part of their immediate obligations, access for everyone to the minimum essential amount of water that is sufficient and safe for personal and domestic uses to prevent disease. States have to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realization of the right to water, including by taking positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right.

Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power in the OPT, has well defined responsibilities to respect the Palestinians’ human right to water. It must not only refrain from taking actions that violate this right or undermine the Palestinian population’s opportunity to realize the right, but also protect the Palestinian population from interference by third parties in their enjoyment of the right to water, and it must take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to ensure that this right is fulfilled and fully realized.