As Jewish settlements thrive, Palestinian taps run dry. The water crisis reflects a broader battle

Isabel DeBre

AP  /  August 17, 2023

JIFTLIK, West Bank – Across the dusty villages of the occupied West Bank, where Israeli water pipes don’t reach, date palms have been left to die. Greenhouses are empty and deserted. Palestinians say they can barely get enough water to bathe their children and wash their clothes — let alone sustain livestock and grow fruit trees.

In sharp contrast, neighboring Jewish settlements look like an oasis. Wildflowers burst through the soil. Farmed fish swim in neat rows of ponds. Children splash in community pools.

The struggle for water access in this strip of fertile land reflects a wider contest for control of the West Bank — and in particular the Jordan Valley, which Palestinians consider the breadbasket of their hoped-for future state and Israelis view as key to protecting their eastern border.

“People are thirsty, the crops are thirsty,” said Hazeh Daraghmeh, a 63-year-old Palestinian date farmer in the Jiftlik area of the valley, where some of his palms have withered in the bone-dry dirt. “They’re trying to squeeze us step by step,” Daraghmeh said.

Across the West Bank, water troubles have stalked Palestinian towns and cities since interim peace accords of the 1990s gave Israel control over 80% of the West Bank’s water reserves — and most other aspects of Palestinian life.

The accords also created a limited self-rule Palestinian government that would provide water to its swelling cities by tapping the rapidly depleting reservoirs it shares with Israel and buying water from Israel’s state-run company. The arrangement left the Palestinians who live in the remaining 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli civil control stranded — disconnected from both Israeli and Palestinian water grids. This includes much of the Jordan Valley.

Intended to last five years, the interim accords remain in place today.

“The amount of water that Israel is supplying has not adapted to the needs of Palestinians and in many cases has not changed since the 1970s,” said Eyal Hareuveni, author of a recent report on the water crisis from Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “The infrastructure is designed to benefit settlements.”

The 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank are connected to the Israeli water grid through a sophisticated network that provides water continuously, but Palestinian cities are not. So in the scorching summer, Palestinians get municipal water only sporadically.

With regional droughts intensifying, temperatures rising and Israel’s far-right government entrenching military rule over the territory, Palestinians say their water problems have worsened.

“This is the hardest summer we’ve had in nine years,” said Palestinian Water Minister Mazen Ghunaim.

Ghunaim accused Israel’s national water company of reducing water supplies to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron by 25% for the past nine weeks. Palestinians in Hebron say their taps have run dry this summer for as long as a month.

Osama Abu Sharkh, a 60-year-old carpenter in Hebron’s Old City, has planned each day this summer according to the water flow. When his tap finally springs to life — even if a trickle — his family is jolted into a frenzy of chores: Cooking, cleaning, and, crucially, filling their water tanks. The tanks hold costly trucked-in water during the long stretches when the taps are dry.

Ghunaim claimed the recent water cuts were a “political problem” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultranationalist government, which has taken a particularly hard line against the Palestinians. “If we were settlers, they would solve this problem instantly,” he said.

Israel’s water authority called the recent disruption to Palestinian cities a technical problem and directed further questions to COGAT, the Israeli agency that liaises with the Palestinians on civilian affairs.

COGAT denied any reduction in water flow and insisted “the supply is continuing in accordance with the agreements.”

But the overall supply is shrinking as the demands of Israeli and Palestinian societies outpace natural replenishment. In the majority of the West Bank where Israel maintains full civilian and security control, Palestinians cannot dig or deepen wells without hard-to-get permits. Since 2021, Israeli authorities have demolished nearly 160 unauthorized Palestinian reservoirs, sewage networks and wells across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, according to the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA.

The rate of demolition is quickening: Over the first half of 2023, authorities knocked down almost the same number of Palestinian water installations as they did all of last year.

Defending the demolitions, COGAT said “the allocation of water for agriculture is performed in accordance with the law.”

In the herding communities of the northern Jordan Valley, Palestinian water consumption is just 26 liters (7 gallons) a day. That is so far below the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 50-100 liters that it is ranked as a disaster zone, according to B’Tselem.

In contrast, Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley consume 400-700 liters per capita a day on average, the rights group said.

Yet unlike neighboring Jordan and other parched Mideast states, Israel has plenty of water. With a world-leading desalination network and recycled waste water, the country no longer relies on subterranean reserves in the same way it did after first capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.

“The main motivation for Israeli actions are not so much about water anymore but about politics,” said Jan Selby, a political expert on water issues at the University of Sheffield.

Israel’s water network is used not only to power settlements — which most of the international community considers illegal — but also to irrigate the abundant vineyards and olive groves of Jewish outposts, which are built without official authorization.

By empowering Jewish outposts to cultivate disputed land and export fine wines and soft dates, Israel expands authority over the West Bank, said anti-settlement researcher Dror Etkes.

“Agricultural cultivation is a much more effective way to grab land than construction,” he said.

For Ibrahim Sawafta, a local council member of the Palestinian village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, Israeli water allocation has become a zero-sum game: Palestinian water scarcity as a result of Jewish settlement prosperity.

Over the years, he has watched his village shrink as its few available water sources have dried up, leaving dates tasteless and forcing farmers to give up their citrus and banana groves.

More than a dozen farming families have recently left Bardala for a northern town with more water, he said, and others have swapped their fields for better-paying jobs in the flourishing farms of Jewish settlements.

“They don’t want us to be farmers,” Sawafta said of Israeli authorities. “They don’t want us to be self-sufficient.”