The struggle for water has been at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years. The tension erupted into a bona fide crisis in the summer of 2016, when numerous Palestinian villages and refugee camps were without water for days, and had to import water barrels to meet basic needs. They lay awake in the middle of the night, waiting, hoping for the pressure to come back to the pipes.
The Palestinians are heavily dependent on the Israelis for water, in spite of aquifers and rainfall collection basins concentrated in the north-central areas of Palestinian territories.
According to the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement, water distribution between the Israelis and Palestinians should be divided 80 percent to 20 percent, respectively. This was intended as a temporary solution, pending a final treaty that would have created a Palestinian state and defined Israel’s borders. Today the situation has seriously deteriorated, with the Palestinians having access to only 14 percent of the basin’s resources.
The Palestinian territories are a complex patchwork where it is not always clear who governs and which entities are responsible for administration. The refugee camps are administrated by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) and UNRWA, the UN organization created in 1948 for Palestinian refugees. Area A is under Palestinian Authority control (15 percent of the West Bank territories), while Area B is governed by the Palestinian civil administration and guarded by Israeli/Palestinian joint military control. Area C contains the rest of the Palestinian territories, where the Israeli settlements are also located. Area C is controlled civilly and militarily by Israel. The area totals about 63 percent of the territories, and includes more than 150,000 Palestinian residents and 326,000 Israeli settlers. In this geo-political mess, the highly politicized management of water resources and infrastructure is a true Gordian knot. The Palestinians’ poor maintenance, the Israeli military’s interference, the difficulty of coordinating between several administrative levels – all subtle political ploys – keep tensions high. Meanwhile, the lives of tens of thousands are impacted every day.
In the Bedouin camp near Ein al-Hilweh, in the Jordan Valley’s Area C, Mahmoud has about five hundred sheep. His flock and shepherds need 10 cubic meters of water per day. But his wells are exhausted, and he cannot move because of security reasons imposed by the military, he says, despite the fact that he is a nomadic shepherd.
More than 30,000 in Area C live in similar conditions. Many have a water consumption of less than 20 liters per day, shown by UN-OCHA data. The price they pay is steep, too: 400 percent of a normal water bill. More than enough money for additional pumps, given that the water pressure is often insufficient, even at ground level. Often, water supply is cut off because of military exercises, which are announced abruptly.
[Text by Emanuele Bompan]