Rashid Safuri can’t hold back the tears when he talks about the Kastel spring on land belonging to the uprooted Galilee Arab village of Saffuriya near the Jewish moshav cooperative community of Tzipori. Safuri, who describes himself as a peasant farmer and the son of a peasant farmer, views the water from the spring as essential to his livelihood. But the Water Authority said the farmers have breached agreements with it as well as a court decision on the subject and wants the farmers to pay for water that they use.
“Any claim that this is state property that we stole is a filthy lie. It’s an illegitimate attempt to drive us from this region and we won’t let it happen,” Safuri said.
Safuri and a few dozen others whose families had been uprooted from the village during the 1948 War of Independence have been fighting for years against efforts by the authorities to deny them free use of the spring on land that they cultivate. They use it to irrigate crops consisting largely of vegetables, mostly for their own use, but some of which are sold.
“It’s a relatively small plot of land, and it doesn’t threaten or bother anyone,” Safuri said. “The state’s insistence that we pay for water and all sorts of expenses is in violation of previous agreements,” he claimed.
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The controversy with the farmers dates back a decade. Two years ago, the Water Authority demanded that water meters be installed so the farmers could be charged for their consumption. The situation has escalated in the past month after the Water Authority, backed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, dispatched a tractor to the complex around the spring. Dozens of people with roots in Saffuriyah rushed to the area and physically blocked the tractor from carrying out the work.
The Water Authority said it has held numerous meetings with members of Al Bustan, the organization representing farmers from families originally from Saffuriya, in an effort to come to agreement on regulating the use of the spring. The authority claimed that the group has refused to abide by agreements that had been reached, and said a September 20 court ruling required the farmers to present a plan, to install a water meter and to apply for a water allocation and a water production permit. The court set an October 10 deadline for installing the meter and said the farmers' group's alternative was to purchase water from Mekorot, the national water company.
Hala Hamdan, a lawyer who represents the farmers, said last week that the Water Authority had also informed her clients that, in keeping with a cabinet decision, the private pumping of spring water would have to cease by 2023, after which the farmers would have to purchase water from Mekorot in any event. Hamdan called that a drastic step that would only serve to reopen the controversy.
The farmers claim to have struck an agreement in the early 1950s through which they received rights to the spring water from the Israel Lands Authority.
A claimed breach of the status quo
The farmers use some 64,000 cubic meters of water a year at no charge, water that the Water Authority is now seeking to require that they pay for. The farmers refuse, claiming that this would be a breach of the status quo. The Water Authority rejected claims that it is attempting to harm the farmers. In a response to Haaretz, it said that “the use of the spring is against the law without proper agricultural rationing. Without a license, the supply goes unmeasured," it said, adding the agency is complying with the court's decision.
How did the status quo come about? “In the 1950s, several families agreed to a land swap and in exchange for thousands of dunams of land, which included considerable sources of water, we received 200 dunams [50 acres] with this spring,” said Azat Sliman, whose family is from Saffuriya. “We are uprooted people living in Nazareth, who go to the farmland on a daily basis and work our land, using the water for irrigation. I don’t know what’s wrong with that and why they should withhold the water from us.”
Sliman said they do not pump any water and use only water flowing above ground. “I don’t think this involves hurting these natural resources, which they want to take from us, and we won’t permit them to do so,” he said.
In recent weeks, following the attempt to send the tractor to the site, the farmers have launched a public campaign, including the daily presence at the site by Nazareth-area residents whose families are originally from Saffuriya. But Sliman said the farmers would indeed install water meters and obtain necessary permits.
“We want to comply with the court’s decision and will act according to legal advice. In the meantime, the water is flowing and we want to move forward. We will decide about the payment at a later stage because we are insisting on our right to receive water,” he said.
The farmers also expect the support of the Jewish residents of neighboring Moshav Tzipori. “We aren’t against anyone. We just want to preserve our spring and our rights,” Sliman said.
Kamal Barghouti, whose family is also from Saffuriya, said the controversy is a cover for a hidden agenda, "for the real thing they want to do." The real aim, he claimed, is "to drive the farmers of Saffuriya from the land, and the easy way to do that is by denying them access to water.”
Barghouti said the land is being cultivated by farmers, some of whom are first or second generation displaced people. "Apparently the continuity bothers someone, but we will not give up."
The Israeli Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has joined the campaign. Its chairman, Mohammed Barakeh, whose family is also from Saffuriya, said he views the issue as a matter of principle.
Referring to a protest rally held by former Saffuriya residents and their offspring, Barakeh called the protest a first step. “This water is what we have left to irrigate Saffuriya's lands, which we view as a symbol of our historic presence on this land, and nobody can erase that history.”