UN: Settlers taking over Palestinian-owned springs

Report claims intimidation, violence being used to limit Palestinian access to W. Bank springs; IDF rejects claims.

Ein Hagvura 370 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Ein Hagvura 370
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Amid the sprawling olive groves that surround Ein Al Ariq – or Ein Hag’vura – outside of Nablus, Jamal Daraghmeh recalled the days of the 1970s, when he and fellow community members used to come to the basin to collect water for their village drinking needs and livestock.
“We [now] have access only after coordination for the olive harvest, once a year,” Daraghmeh, mayor of the nearby village al Luban al Sharqiya, told reporters during a United Nations field tour of the area last week. Information from the tour was embargoed until Monday.
Daraghmeh, who claimed that his family actually owned the land around the spring, which was renovated into a bathing pool by the nearby Eli settlement, told reporters on Tuesday that he could no longer enter the area without a prearranged security detail.
His narrative was interrupted by Amiad Cohen, head of security for the Eli settlement, who arrived at the spring after he spotted the group of journalist and UN officials.
“Here no one tells you not to come – come!” Cohen said. “No one stops you,” he added.
The visit to Ein Hag’vura was part of a media field tour of several area springs that followed a press briefing in Jerusalem about the release of a new UN report called “How Dispossession Happens: The humanitarian impact of the takeover of Palestinian water springs by Israeli settlers.”
The report, assembled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was officially released to the public on Monday.
It details how in the past decade settlers have renovated and developed West Bank springs located for the most part on private Palestinian land in Area C.
“In the West Bank water is a scarce resource,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, head of the OCHA, during the press briefing.
Due to the Israeli settler “takeover” of so many Area C springs, Palestinian farmers are not able to cultivate their crops any longer, according to Rajasingham.
The IDF, however, rejected the report as “distorted, biased and full of inaccuracies.”
According to the spokesman for the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the territories, work to enhance and improve West Bank sites, including natural springs, requires a permit. The Civil Administration, he said, recently acted against illegal construction of the natural spring at El Kabira, next to Eilon Moreh, and started a judicial procedure against illegal construction of the spring at Ein Elmah’na, next to the Har Bracha settlement.
“There is nothing preventing the Palestinians from accessing the natural springs,” he said. “Everyone has the right to access the local natural springs in the public spaces. In case there is a complaint that any party is preventing, threatening or interfering with access to such sites, it must be reported to the nearest police station.”
COGAT, which received the report only on Thursday, did not provide information on how many of the natural springs had permits.
A Civil Administration official told The Jerusalem Post, “We are sorry that the UN wrote such a report without first coming and talking to us.”
During a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Rajasingham of OCHA said the settler takeover of natural springs was just one example of the human vulnerability that results from the occupation. UN researchers have set out to analyze the situation on the ground, he explained.
“It’s a kind of microcosm that highlights some of the settlement activity in general,” agreed Yehezkel Lein, head of the research and analyst unit at OCHA.
After this winter’s extensive rains, there is much-needed water flowing generously through the West Bank springs. However, the Palestinians have very limited access to this resource, according to Lein.
In addition to the Ein Hag’vura example, another spring is Ein Al Dhara – now Mayan Ateret – where settlers have developed springs that were Palestinian-owned into tourist attractions for Israelis, he explained. OCHA representatives showed journalists a video during the briefing, in which Rabbi Oren Attiya of a nearby settlement praised the work of his community at Mayan Ateret, which he said transformed the area from a muddy hole into a relaxing place to visit.
In the report, the OCHA researchers identified 56 springs in the vicinity of Israeli settlements, predominantly in Area C (93 percent), of which 30 had been completely “taken over” by settlers – giving Palestinians limited or no access at all to these springs, according to Lein.
The researchers considered the remaining 26 to be “at risk” for similar takeover, and of the total 56 springs documented, 84% were located on private Palestinian land, he said.
More than half of these springs are located within the Ramallah governate, while another two clusters are in the Gush Etzion-Bethlehem area and southeast of Nablus, respectively. The “methods for takeover,” according to the report, for 22 out of the 30 springs have involved intimidation, threats and violence, with a significant role being played by the security coordinators in the settlements. Meanwhile, four of the springs ended up isolated by security barriers inside closed military zones, and another four were isolated by perimeter fences.
The OCHA team deemed the other 26 springs “at risk” due to the fact that groups of settlers regularly visit them with tour groups and students from Israel proper, and only allow for limited Palestinian use.
Settlers are in the process of developing at least 40 of the springs into tourist sites, with pool renovations, picnic tables, benches, shading structures, new roads and occasional parking lots, as well as signs that contain Hebrew but no Arabic, according to Lein.
“This gives a kind of symbolic meaning to the appropriation,” he said.
The so-called takeover of springs is “contributing to the entrenchment of the settlement enterprise” in a number of ways, according to Yehezkel. By developing the springs, the settlements generate employment opportunities and revenue for themselves, secure control of disputed space and help “normalize” settlements in the eyes of perhaps formerly skeptical Israelis, he explained.
Serious efforts on the part of various right-wing non-governmental organizations have brought hordes of high school students from within Israel proper to visit historical places in the West Bank, like Shilo and Hebron, in the same manner as they are coming to the springs – “taking them as a captive audience and bringing them as classes to the West Bank,” according to human rights consultant and anti-settlement activist Dror Etkes.
“Traditionally, settlements were seen as kind of ideologically contentious, something that has to do with politics,” he said. “Now this is a way of advertising settlements as a kind of ‘fun’ thing, somewhere you go to have a fun time and not have to think about politics.”
David Ha’ivri, who heads the Shomron Liaison Office and is a spokesman for the Samaria Regional Council, said he was startled to hear that the UN had compiled a report on natural springs.
It showed, he said, the extreme lengths the UN would go to “manipulate” the facts on the ground.
“In many locations in Judea and Samaria, young people who hike around the communities have found springs and developed them into recreation areas,” he said. They dug out pools and developed the areas into small parks with picnic benches that are open to the public. It is mostly local young people who use the springs, he added.
Ha’ivri noted that spring water flowed naturally in and out of the small pools that had been created, and could still be used by Palestinians for agricultural purposes.
During the field tour that began at Ein Tut, near the Beit El settlement, Etkes pointed out new roads and a parking lot that settlers had built at the spring, adding that “you will never find a sign in Arabic simply because Arabs are not invited.”
Residents of adjacent Arab villages were accustomed to using the spring in the past as a water hole for their animals, as well as for domestic use, but “nowadays they are afraid,” according to Ayman W. Sheikh Ibrahim, humanitarian affairs associate at OCHA’s Central Field Coordination Unit for Jerusalem, Ramallah and the Jordan Valley.
Without easy access to their springs, many Palestinian farmers must now solely rely on rainfall and expensive water from tankers in order to irrigate their crops, Lein explained during the press briefing. They often feel too intimidated by the presence of armed settlers to even approach the spring waters, he said.
All of the spring activity occurs with the “acquiescence and sometimes active support of the Israeli authorities,” even though building on and developing these lands is technically illegal, according to Lein. At Ein Hag’vura, for example, Etkes pointed out that the emblem of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was etched into the Hebrew-only welcoming sign.
“Our recommendations in this regard are quite straightforward,” Lein said. “First, it is to stop settlement expansion, to restore Palestinian access to springs taken over, to conduct effective investigations into trespass attacks and physical assault and, finally, to prevent the ongoing phenomenon of settler tours in springs located on private Palestinian property.”
On the ground at Ein Hag’vura, however, the situation was not quite as straightforward.
After Daraghmeh argued that he owned the land and should be able to go there freely, Cohen acknowledged that “this is private Palestinian land in Israel,” but that according to the law anyone could visit private agricultural land. Offering Daraghmeh his personal cell phone for protection should he encounter any problems in the future, Cohen meanwhile blamed the army for troubles that had occurred there.
“We are developing because the Jews love the Land of Israel,” Cohen said. “We come in peace and want to be good neighbors.”