Opinion |

Israel Declares War on Palestinian Water

Natasha Westheimer
Natasha Westheimer
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Members of the Hamamdi family.
Members of the Hamamdi family.Credit: Alex Levac
Natasha Westheimer
Natasha Westheimer

On September 17, I joined a group of activists in the Masafer Yatta area of the West Bank to accompany a truck delivering water to the Hamamdis, a family of three who live in a small village without access to running water. The Israeli military welcomed our efforts with a barrage of tear gas, and by early afternoon, I was in a Jerusalem emergency room with a broken bone in my hand.

The Hamamdi family lives in a home just a few-hundred meters from the Israeli settlement of Avigayil. And, while Avigayil is an illegal outpost even under Israeli law, it is connected to the water system, a privilege that the army does not give to the outpost’s Palestinian neighbors. Instead, the Hamamdi family is forced to truck in their water. Due to Israeli restrictions on developing local roads, deliveries can only be made with an off-road, 4x4 vehicle with a water tank in tow. The family pays at least five times what I pay for water in Jerusalem. The obstacles are growing: With Avigayil’s recent expansion, truck drivers are today far less willing to take risk the pot-holed roads under the threat of settler violence.

We never succeeded in delivering the water. Within seconds of our arrival, the army dispersed us with stun grenades, tear gas and extreme physical violence, throwing some of us off the road and detaining others with knee-on-neck restraints and blindfolds. The family to whom we were trying to deliver the water went yet another day without their basic needs met.

The degree of violence was newsworthy enough to make the Israeli media cycle, and the army even opened an investigation and reprimanded the officer in charge of his violent behavior, but the underlying issue remains: Nothing about the September 17 incident was unusual. The government, the military and the settler movement’s efforts to restrict Palestinian access to water make extensive use of demolitions and confiscations. Violence, both direct and indirect, is a fundamental to Israeli control over Palestinian water rights.

In the Masafer Yatta area this year, Israeli authorities have uprooted and destroyed a critical water supply network. They have conducted training exercises in residential and agriculture areas, which have damaged water pipes and cisterns. They demolished a well for collecting rainwater for one of the many local communities lacking access to piped water. Targeting water infrastructure is a precise and brutal way of making life unlivable for Palestinians, particularly in Area C.

This military violence is bolstered by settler violence. Just this week, dozens of masked settlers wreaked havoc on the Hamamdi family’s village, injuring 12 residents, including a three-year-old boy, and destroying anything they could, including water tanks. In Masafer Yatta, seven illegal settlements have been established in the area this year alone, all of which have contributed to an increase in settler violence across the West Bank.

Many of these new settlements are located on Palestinian-owned grazing areas, thereby destroying the environment, land and livelihoods of those in the area. Shepherds have faced harassment and attacks from these settlers while attempting to access their herd’s water holes. Solidarity activists are not immune to this violence. In May, two of them accompanying a Palestinian shepherd were brutally attacked by settlers blocking access to his herd’s watering hole. And while most Israeli settlements are connected to a water supply, settlers have been known to take over Palestinian springs and watering holes for recreational and religious uses.

State and settler violence against Palestinian water access is not limited to the area of Masafer Yatta. One third of Gaza’s water infrastructure was destroyed during the most recent war, and Israel refuses to recognize groundwater rights it agreed to in the Oslo Accords 25 years ago. As a result, the Palestinian water supply is far below World Health Organization standards, and daily access is far less than what Israelis (including settlers) receive.

The violence that occurred September 17 was horrifying, but it was simply another manifestation of decades of Israeli policies and actions. And while the news cycle has moved on to other issues, the Hamamdi family has gotten neither respite nor resolution. If the systematic practices and growing trend of violence continue to be any indication of the future, securing any reliable access to water is simply a pipe dream.

Natasha Westheimer is an Australian-American water management specialist and anti-occupation activist based in Jerusalem.

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