Justice and water denied on the West Bank

By Patrick Franks
10 Dec 2009

Rows of neat suburban houses stand on the parched, barren hillside. A water tower looms over them, irrigating lush greenery in the gardens. But outside this West Bank settlement's perimeter fence sits the tiny Bedouin community of Umm Al Kher, whose residents are desperate for water.

Here in the South Hebron Hills, rainfall has been scarce for many months. Grey rock and dry, rugged earth spread off in every direction. But locals who met observers from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel said the effects of the recent drought are exacerbating a man-made water crisis.

The community is not connected to any water supply network and the Israeli army will not issue permits to dig wells. The community is forced to buy tanked water from Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, which charges 5 shekels (around $1.30) per cubic metre. That cost prohibits the shepherds of Umm Al Kher from irrigating crops. Umm Al Kher's only other water supply is a pipe no bigger than a garden hose that trails across from the pump in the settlement.

"Sometimes they turn the water off for days at a time," one resident of Umm Al Kher told an Ecumenical Accompanier from Britain. "We have enough water for drinking and washing but no water for agriculture."

Ecumenical Accompaniers, who are sent by the World Council of Churches to provide a protective presence and human rights monitoring throughout the West Bank, regularly visit the villages of the South Hebron hills. These isolated communities struggle with the combined challenges of land confiscation and violence by Israeli settlers on the one hand and movement and building restrictions imposed by the Israeli military on the other.

Amnesty International recently completed an investigation into Israel's water policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It revealed a host of measures which prevent Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza from obtaining adequate water. Demolitions of storage facilities and denial of access to aquifers, along with bans on digging wells, mean that up to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water at all.

Israeli settlers, meanwhile, face no such challenges. With their intensive irrigation farms, lush gardens and swimming pools, they consume on average around 300 litres each per day. Average Palestinian consumption is around a quarter of that, and well short of the 100 litres minimum recommended by the World Health Organization. In some cases Palestinians survive on as little as 20 litres a day, usually brought in by tanker. For communities which rely on agriculture for a living, the lack of water is critical.

No water for farms, no passage for shepherds

These problems are exacerbating the impact of a long-running drought. Bedouins coping with dry spells in the past would have moved around in search of good pasture. But these days, much of the best grazing land is off-limits, confiscated by the Israeli settlements which are spreading inexorably across the landscape.

Palestinian shepherds are tied down by movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli army and the threat of violence from Israeli settlers which bars them from grazing in certain areas. Armed youths from the settlement regularly threaten the village itself. Recently, they broke through the barrier fence to steal the Bedouins' few scrawny chickens. There is also frequent abuse and stone throwing.

Salim, a shepherd from Umm Al Kher, says that complaining about water problems ignores the root cause. In order to improve the water situation, Umm Al Kher needs to build pipes, but the village is in an area where the Israeli authorities refuse to grant building permits to Palestinians.

As recently as October, the Israeli authorities told international non-governmental development organizations that they are breaking the law if they build in the village. The Oslo Accords of 1994 placed the village in "Area C," meaning it is under full Israeli military and civilian control. The Israeli authorities do not grant permits to Palestinians in Area C, so although the residents have papers proving they own the land, they cannot build on it.

The frustration this creates is palpable within the village. The residents live underneath electricity wires which run from the settlement to a nearby chicken factory also belonging to the settlers. But Umm Al Kher's residents are not connected to the electricity network. And even though they have papers proving they own this patch of land, every structure the Bedouins have built here since 1967 has a demolition order hanging over it, including the tents. Several buildings have already been destroyed - including a toilet block.

Eid, the son of a village elder, was defiant. "Every time they destroy our buildings, we will build them again. This is our land," he said.

His determination does not hide the fact that Umm Al Kher is in a precarious spot. Winter rains may make these hills green pastures for a few months, but the long term future of Bedouin communities like Umm Al Kher hangs in the balance.

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(c) Patrick Franks and Miranda Rosoux are members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). With grateful acknowedgements to the WCC (http://www.oikoumene.org/).

In Britain, the EAPPI programme has been coordinated by the Quakers in ecumenical cooperation with other churches and agencies. http://www.quaker.org.uk/eappi Ekklesia is happy to support the work of both the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Israel-Palestine.

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