Settlers in the West Bank have seized control of dozens of springs in the past few years, and often use violence and intimidation to prevent Palestinians' access to them, according to a UN agency report published yesterday.
The report was commissioned by OCHA, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to data compiled by Dror Etkes, former head of the Peace Now settlement-tracking project, settlers have been acting systematically to control some 56 springs, 30 of which have been completely taken over. Most of the springs are in the area of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council; the council for its part denies that Palestinians are not being allowed to use the water.
A Civil Administration spokesman said that Palestinians should lodge a complaint if they are denied access or are treated violently at the springs.
The report states that most of the springs are located on private Palestinian land, and it outlines the various stage of the ostensibly systematic takeovers there. The first step is marking the area as a tourist site with a new Hebrew name. The next involves erection of various structures, including benches and picnic tables, and closing off pools. All these activities, the report says, are carried out without permits.
Among the information published are testimonies by Palestinians who said they are afraid of approaching the water sources due to settler violence, especially of local security coordinators.
"This activity prevents the Palestinians from using the springs for drinking water and agricultural purposes," Lane says. "It is part of the settlers' efforts to control rural areas surrounding their settlements. Transforming springs to tourist sites enables them to 'normalize' the settlements in the eyes of the Israeli public."
The response of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council: "For some years now the council is active in developing, restoring and preserving natural and heritage sites. As part of this process several murky springs were transformed into accessible sites for the public. In some cases an irrigation system was built for livestock. The springs are now active tourist sites serving both Palestinians and Jews ... after dozens of years of neglect."
Last week, OCHA officials inspected a site next to the community of Eli, called the Hagevura (Courage ) spring by the settlers, and Ein Arik by the Palestinians. Jamal Dramda, head of the adjacent village of Luban al-Sharqiya, told the officials that the army "forbids us to enter the site, apart from a few days a year, to harvest olives."
Countered Eli's security coordinator, Amiad Cohen: "I've never prevented access to any Palestinian. One can see the olives are well taken care of, and that's because they come here. Jews love to cultivate things and make them beautiful. The Palestinians interpret that as a declaration of ownership on the land and that's why they burn down and destroy things."
The Civil Administration reacted to the report in writing: "Any building activity in Area C [under Israeli control], including the restoration of sites, including springs, necessitates building permits. In contradiction to the report, we have recently conducted enforcement activities against such illegal construction at springs near Elon Moreh and Har Brakha. Everyone has the right to approach springs in public areas. If access to any individual is being denied by any person, that individual should submit a complaint to the police."