All’s well that ends well? Chasing W. Bank water pirates

Israeli troops scuffle with Palestinian farmers as they cap illegal water installations; official: "This could be reason for another intifada."

May 31, 2011 13:56
4 minute read.
ISRAELI WASTEWATER treatment technology

wastewater 311. (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)

KUFR DAN, West Bank – The Israelis arrived at about one in the afternoon – a phalanx of 30 soldiers, 10 jeeps and a tractor at this town west of Jenin. Palestinians rapidly appeared on the scene as well and soon the two sides were scuffling, with farmers shouting “Get these tractors away before something happens” and climbing aboard a tractor in an effort to stop it from working.

Confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians are nothing new, but this one may portend a new kind of friction as the scare water resources of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza come under increasing strain from growing populations, rising living standards and recurrent droughts.

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The Israeli troops hadn’t come to arrest suspected terrorists or to put down a violent protest. They were in Kufr Dan, a local center for cucumber farms, to close what officials said were illegal water wells. In Kufr Dan, they used a tractor to rip out pipes reaching down into water sources or to push the pumps deep into ground. In others, they cut electricity lines to the pumps.

“There is a Palestinian phrase that says ‘pressure begets explosion.’ This could be the reason for another intifada. Israel is ruining its security with its own hands. They talk about peace but there is no peace,” Qaher Abed, village council member and farmer, told The Media Line.

In 2010, the Civil Administration, the Israeli military body responsible for governing those parts of the West Bank still under its control, gave top priority to shutting pirate wells. It also moved to end practice common in the area around Hebron, in the south, of stealing water from pipes belonging to the water company.

Israeli officials – as well as their counterparts in the Palestinian Authority – are worried that illegal tapping of water is going to exacerbate an existing water crisis. It threatens to empty the aquifers – huge natural underground reservoirs under the West Bank – and makes it more difficult for the legal drilling of wells to obtain the water they are entitled to.

Experts point to the Gaza Strip, where some 6,000 wells have caused the aquifer to go saline as seawater fills in where fresh water is depleted.

“Based on ground surveys and aerial photography as well as intelligence reports, we’ve discovered the presence of high water-consumption farming has proliferated over the last five years,” Rami Ziv, deputy head of inspection for Israel’s Civil Administration, said as his men were working. “Water is a natural resource – it must be managed responsibly. You just can’t pump it freely.”

But for the Palestinian farmers of Kufr Dan the illegal wells are the only way to water the cucumber crop, which is their main source of livelihood. Growers claim they pay up to 100,000 shekels ($29,000) for a pump, imported from Italy.

“The cucumber season has just begun and this is the only source of livelihood for the 6,000 people in the village and 4,000 in surrounding villages,” Bilal Mar’i, head of the village council, told The Media Line. Israelis will also feel the loss of the crop, most of which is sold to processors in Israel to make canned pickles.

“These cucumbers are meant for you. It’s illogical,” Omar Abed, a farmer, shouted at the Israelis. He denied that farmers had dug into the aquifers, but were simply tacking into water lying just below the surface.

Palestinians admit that the illegal wells are causing damage, but they dispute the extent of the damage and say they can take their own measures to stop the poaching. Israeli officials estimate there are some 177 illegal drillings across the West Bank, but Palestinians say there may be as many as 250.

Raslan Abed, who is a member of the local irrigation committee in Kfur Dan, recalls the days before Israel seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from the Kingdom of Jordan.

“In the time of the Jordanians, the [legal] wells used to supply one million cubic meters and today with all the illegal wells, they have only one-tenth of that,” he told The Media Line.

The water issue is emotional enough as it is, but the politics of water complicates it even more.

The big aquifers of the region lie mainly under the West Bank, the area Palestinians claim for their future state. But Israel draws from the aquifers and under the Oslo agreement its security personnel can enter any area of the West Bank, including areas under Palestinian rule, to stop illegal drilling and other such activities because water is considered a joint resource. A joint Israeli-Palestinian water commission gives permits to drill.

Israel says it gives tens of millions of cubic meters more water to the Palestinians than the Oslo agreement provides. Israeli officials say the Palestinians need to learn how to make better use of the water they have, including using treated sewage for agriculture. Right now, farmers use potable water for their crops.

That goal may finally be in sight after years of delays. The World Bank last week said it would oversee the construction of a $45 million wastewater treatment plant in Hebron. Funding will come from the French government and other sources.

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