Jisr al-Zarqa - Nimrod Glickman - 07102011
A man collecting drinking water in buckets in Jisr al-Zarqa. Photo by Nimrod Glickman
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The water supply to Jisr al-Zarqa, one of the poorest villages in Israel, has been cut off for about 10 hours a day for the past two weeks, due to a mounting debt to the Mekorot water company.

The residents of the village, located north of Caesarea, accuse Mekorot of penalizing the entire community for the debts of certain people who refuse to pay their water bills.

"There is no water in the village most of the day, including in schools and mosques," says Hassan Ali of Jisr al-Zarqa. "Some people here haven't paid their bill for 20 years. But Mekorot is imposing a collective punishment on everyone, turning villagers into victims and holding them hostage to pressure the local council to pay up."

The community has been subjected to occasional water cuts without warning since March, when the debt rose to NIS 3 million. The debt climbed to NIS 5 million last month and two weeks ago Mekorot started disconnecting the water supply daily from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.

"People are forced to stock up water in buckets and barrels, or pump water from wells and springs, not knowing when the supply will be cut off," says Ali. "The council cannot pay the debt, but things cannot go on like this."

Hassan and a group of activists from the village and the neighboring communities Binyamina, Zichron Yaakov and Or Akiva, have launched a joint campaign against cutting off the water supply to Jisr al-Zarqa.

"We intend to act on all levels, including lobbying Knesset members and taking legal steps," says Ali. "The residents are fighting for their survival. We've become accustomed to life without water. We are protesting against the infringement of a basic right and the collective punishment Mekorot is subjecting the entire village to. We want to place it on the public agenda."

Jisr al-Zarqa's financial situation is deteriorating annually due to an extremely low tax-collection rate, which augments the local council's deficit by millions of shekels every year. The council's financial deficit is now NIS 30 million and its staff have not received wages for six months.

The local council and the Interior Ministry are working on a recovery plan under which the state will cover part of the council's debts in exchange for streamlining reforms and higher taxes. Last month the council hired a debt collection company that foreclosed the debtors' bank accounts. The company will obtain court-issued orders forbidding those who fail to pay their water bills from leaving the country, seize their cars and take other measures against them, said local council head Az-a-Din Amash.

"People are simply not paying up," Amash said. "The water bill isn't their top priority. They pay their electricity and cellphone bills, but not water. My complaint isn't against Mekorot - it is like a milk supplier to a store. If the store owner fails to pay, they stop delivering the goods. People don't pay unless they are punished."

Mekorot commented that its officials were in "almost daily" contact with Jisr al-Zarqa's council head, treasurer and accountant in a bid to arrange payments for the water debt.

"The cuts in the water supply are coordinated with the council head ... and are no longer than five consecutive hours a day and not on weekends ... When Mekorot has no way of collecting its debts it is forced to use the only legal measure at its disposal."