Israel's war by water

Observations on Palestine

Eight tankers are parked on the rough ground at the filling point. The drivers look anxiously at a metal box attached to a large water-pipe that carries a trickle of water into the nearest tanker. Dr Hassan of the Palestinian Hydrology Group explains: "They are looking at the pressure gauge. Pressure is very low and the drivers are worried. No water deliveries, no pay." This is the Dhahiriya water filling point, a few miles south of Hebron in the West Bank. Many nearby Palestinian communities - the "unconnected villages" - rely on this water.

"When the pressure is good," says Dr Hassan, "a tanker can be filled in 20 to 30 minutes. But now it takes about three hours. At this rate it will take two months to supply all the people on this list. But new names are being added every day." There is no immediate solution.

Israel controls 80 per cent of West Bank groundwater, an arrangement that would have been addressed under the Oslo peace process. Because the process unravelled, little has changed: Palestinians bear the brunt of the area's water shortages.

Under Oslo, the West Bank was divided into three areas, with 60 per cent of it, known as Area C, under full Israeli military control. About 70,000 Palestinians, mainly farmers and shepherds, live in this area, eking out a precarious living in circumstances that deteriorate year on year.

Perhaps the worst affected part of the West Bank is the area around Hebron, the West Bank's largest city. The disastrous 2007-2008 wet season produced only 13 per cent of the expected annual average rainfall. By March this year it was clear that for the communities living in Area C, to the south of the city, survival would be a major achievement.

In Area C there are many villages and hamlets that, unlike the neighbouring Israeli settlements, are not connected to the water network. The people here rely on springs, wells and collecting surface-water in cisterns, but it is not enough. Connection to the mains would make a huge difference to life in these rural communities. But there is a snag. They need permission to build any kind of structure and even if their documentation is in order, the final say lies with the Israel Defence Forces civil administration. A recent UN report records that between 2000 and 2007, 94 per cent of building permit applications submitted by Palestinians living in Area C were denied.

One of the scores of unconnected villages in the south Hebron hills is at-Tuwani. A village leader, Hafez, is clearly worried. "The settlements are connected to the network but when we want to build new cisterns the Israelis won't give us permission. If we build them the army will knock them down."

The villagers suspect that this is part of Israel's plan of "silent transfer" - if life here becomes too difficult for the Palestinians, they will leave. The many settlements around Hebron have no trouble gaining access to the water network. Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, will connect them for the same price as other domestic customers in Israel - four shekels per cubic metre (pcm). The settlement of Otniel, visible from the Dhahiriya filling point, enjoys this luxury.

In the unconnected villages, tankered water costs 15-17 shekels pcm. Remote communities have to pay up to 50 shekels pcm. For people whose main incomes derive from subsistence farming, the costs are impossible to meet. Hafez warns: "People here cannot pay these prices and without emergency aid they will have to abandon their villages, leaving the land for the settlers. This is what the Israelis want."

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class