‘If you take away water, you take away life’

March 22, 2019

‘On this hot, early Spring day, twelve villages lose their water supply. Water required by roughly fifteen hundred men, women and children and tens of thousands of animals cared for by these people.’

EA Mike

On 13th February 2019 around 8am, a convoy of Israeli military vehicles, lorries and bulldozers drove into Masafer Yatta to destroy its water pipes. Masafer Yatta is a collection of Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills. It is a large area is at the southern tip of the occupied West Bank leading to the Green Line border with Israel and the Negev desert.

A confiscation order was summarily issued to the leader of Masafer Yatta Council, Nidal Yones. No prior warning had been given. Vehicles drove up the valley to the head of Khallet Ath Athaba. A Volvo bulldozer started to dig up water pipes, which were then cut into pieces with chainsaws. The pipes were then taken away in lorries. Around seven kilometres of water pipes were destroyed and confiscated in six hours. The officials overseeing the work had plans and seemed to know where all the pipes were to be found.

Israeli Civil Administration workers cut the water pipes

Around twenty Israeli Civil Administration (CA) workers cut the pipes. Palestinians including traditional Bedouin or ‘herding’ communities have lived on this land for many generations. It is part of what the international community calls occupied Palestinian Territory. For Israel, though, it is disputed land.

Israel designated Masafer Yatta as a closed military area, Firing Zone 918, back in the 1970s. This required Palestinians to leave their land. Over the years, the High Court in Israel has provided support to Palestinian villagers from Masafer Yatta, questioning the legality of their expulsion. However, the CA continues to implement policies which make life for Palestinians unsustainable. Many, therefore, are left with no choice but to leave of their own accord.

On this day, fifteen or more soldiers patrolled the area, keeping local people at a distance so that demolition work was not interrupted. Palestinian people took pictures and videos of the destruction and soldiers took pictures and videos of them and the international witnesses present. Occasionally soldiers checked the ID cards of local people. Two community leaders were arrested and later released.

Israeli soldiers stand guard as water pipes are dismantled

On this hot, early Spring day, twelve villages lose their water supply. Water required by roughly fifteen hundred men, women and children and tens of thousands of animals cared for by these people. There was no fighting. One old shepherd shouted at soldiers that he needed water for his sheep. A fellow EA saw some children start to throw stones at soldiers. They were quickly stopped by their elders. The response from the forty or so Palestinian men who watched this destruction at close quarters was one of quiet desperation and resignation. What could they do?

This operation was large scale, but EAs in this area also recently witnessed the destruction of small wells, which were constructed by families in isolated communities. The CA employs two main arguments to justify actions such as the destruction of water pipes and wells – lack of permits to build infrastructure, and security reasons.

Palestinian shepherd protests the destruction of the pipes

Lack of permits

We’re informed that the Masafer Yatta Council tried to get a building permit for their water pipes but the CA made this extremely difficult. They asked, for example, the Council to provide ownership papers from every Palestinian owner of the land. This might be around 1000 owners, an impossible task in a land where paper documentation is not owned by everyone. Even where Palestinians take steps to follow the restrictive, bureaucratic processes required for a permit, the chance of approval is only about 5%.

Security reasons

The Israeli military also cites security reasons for many of the actions carried out in the West Bank. Security needs supersede many other international standards and if an act is carried out in the interests of security, certain due processes may be circumvented. It is difficult to see how removing the water supply from twelve villages could could constitute a security imperative under international law.

Water, of course, is a security issue. It is a national security issue. For Palestine, the high dependence upon agriculture makes water vital. For Israel, the water resources of the West Bank (including the River Jordan and the Mountain Aquifer running underneath the West Bank) are seen as vital to their needs. Back in 1990 the Israeli Agriculture Minister, Rafael Eitan, warned that Israel would lose nearly 60% of its water if they gave up the occupied West Bank permanently.

These water resources are transboundary so, by international law, they should be shared fairly by Israel and Palestine, but they are not. On average Palestinians have access to 70 litres/capita/day (l/c/d) for domestic use. The World Health Organisation recommended minimum is 100 l/c/d. And in some Palestinian communities located in Area C (the 60% of the West Bank completely controlled by Israel), they have access to 20 l/c/d. On the other hand, Israel, through its water company Mekorot, ensures that its citizens, including those Israelis living in settlements on occupied land, have three to five times more water than Palestinians.

Israeli settlements in the South Hebron Hills, unlawful under international law, have a plentiful supply. The settlement of Ma’on, for example, has a large dairy and chicken farm and well-irrigated orchards and farmland. Even unauthorized settlement outposts, illegal under Israeli law, receive water from Mekorot.

According to Amnesty International, ‘some 180,000 – 200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water and even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry’. Palestinians have to buy tankered water which costs up to 400% more than network water. Prices have risen as tankers have to take long detours along unpaved tracks to deliver the water. Settlement farms thrive with their water-intensive commercial agriculture whilst Palestinian farmers are able to irrigate only 6.8% of their land.

If villagers in areas such as Masafer Yatta had more water their lives would improve immeasurably. Their life could become sustainable. All the Palestinians I spoke to on this day were convinced that the CA were confiscating their water pipes strategically to force them to move away from their land. ‘If you take away water, you take away life,’ one man said.

What does international law say?

‘Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.’

Article 53, Fourth Geneva Convention

'To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities.. public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.'

Article 56, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

by EA Mike    –    March 22, 2019

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