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The Bedouin struggle for water in the Jordan Valley

12:00 Nov 16 2011 Jordan Valley, West Bank

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by Ben Lorber for Mondoweiss

Speaking to the Congress in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked that Israel would maintain a long-term presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. In the months that followed, the Israeli army stepped up its attacks on the water wells of the Palestinians who live there.

On November 14th, two water wells were demolished in Baqa’a, east of Tammun, robbing hundreds of families of the ability to irrigate their land. On October 13, farmers received demolition orders on several water wells in Kufr al-Deek, a village in the town of Salfit near Nablus. In September, Israeli military forces demolished 6 water wells belonging to Palestinian Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, and have threatened to demolish six more. In all these cases, the unilateral actions are explicitly illegal because these wells were built with full permission from the Palestinian Authority, in areas of the Valley supposedly under exclusive Palestinian civil and military control.

The injustice is especially pronounced in the Jordan Valley. On the 8th of September, 50 military jeeps, trucks and bulldozers sealed off Al Nasarayah as a closed military zone, and proceeded to illegally destroy 3 water wells and confiscate the attached water systems, the pumps of which cost $40,000 each to install. Five days later, the military returned to Al Nasarayah to demolish 2 more wells, stopping along the way to destroy another well east of Tamoun. The next day, Israeli soldiers entered the village of Al- Fa’ara, near Nablus, to photograph and record the GPS coordinates of 6 more wells intended for demolition.

The military’s actions are illegal under Israeli, Palestinian and international law because these 6 water wells had permits from the Palestinian Authority, and operated in the 5% of the Jordan Valley designated after the 1994 Oslo Accords Area A, under full Palestinian civil and military control. The motives behind Israel’s actions on the ground, however, emerge into the light of day when seen in the context of other recent Israeli policy resolutions- a plan announced in September to uproot and transfer some 27,000 Bedouin out of Israel-controlled Area C in the West Bank (most Area C Bedouin live in the Jordan Valley), and a decision by the Settlement Division in early July to increase by 130% the land given to settlers for farming in the Jordan Valley, and to increase from 42 to 51 cubic meters per year the amount of water given to settlers to irrigate such farmland.

What do the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin water wells in the Jordan Valley, the transfer of Palestinian Bedouin citizens out of the Jordan Valley, and the expansion of land and water given to settlers in the Jordan Valley, all have in common? Together, they highlight the oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley that has typified Israeli policy since the Valley became occupied territory in 1967.

A focal point of this oppression -- and a crucial locus of the Palestinian Bedouin struggle to resist the occupation and remain in their homeland -- is the issue of water. For as Israel has seized absolute control over allocation and distribution of the resources of the 3 water aquifers under the West Bank for use on both sides of the Green Line, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, and especially the Bedouin population of the Jordan Valley, have seen the steady drying-up of the once-flowing springs around which they have built their villages, have found themselves unable to dig sufficient wells of their own because of crippling Israeli regulations, and have watched themselves become dependent on the exorbitant prices of their oppressor for access to so basic and indispensable a human right.

Far more than in the rest of the West Bank, the struggle over water for the Jordan Valley Bedouin is a struggle between life and death. The ‘draining away’ of Palestinian water rights in the Jordan Valley- to borrow the title of a 2010 report by Ma’an Development Center- has a long and tumultuous history. When the West Bank became occupied territory in 1967, the Israeli army established a military order to the effect that all West Bank water came under control of the state, and Israel’s national water carrier, Mekorot, seized water aquifers and developed wells throughout the West Bank to serve Israel and its newly expanding settlements. Between 1967 and the 1994 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Bedouin in the Jordan Valley saw first their land, and then their water, disappear behind the heavily-guarded gates of settlements, where settlers were granted ample supplies of the latter in order to make the former bloom.

The situation grew increasingly dire until a brief ray of hope in 1995, when Article 40 of the Oslo II agreements set an interim agreement, designed to be revised within five years (but still in effect to this day), whereby approximately one quarter of West Bank water resources would come under Palestinian Authority control, and a Joint Water Committee would be established, in the words of the 2009 World Bank report ‘Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Development: West Bank and Gaza’, “to oversee management of the aquifers, with decisions to be based on consensus between the two parties.”

However, Oslo brought with it new institutionalized systems of oppression. Since Oslo 1 in 1993 consigned 95% of the Jordan Valley to Area C status (under full Israeli and military control), neither the Area C Bedouin communities themselves, nor the Palestinian Authority, nor the constant swarm of international NGOs, can commence with unregulated construction of their own initiative, because, in the words of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a grassroots movement, “across Area C, access to basic services such as water is restricted through the debilitating permit system which is regulated by the Israeli Civil Administration. Obtaining a permit for any form of construction –even for water- is notoriously difficult, nay impossible. This prevents Palestinians from building new infrastructure, or from making improvements to existing facilities.”

Atop this blanket layer of oppression, which effectively and intentionally squelches all trace of community autonomy, the Palestinian Bedouin in the 95% of the Jordan Valley which is Area C are deprived of the ability to improve their access to water resources through three interlocking buereacratic systems of control -- the Joint Water Committee, where a group of Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers permits or denies water access or rehabilitation projects proposed by the Palestinian Water Authority (for Areas A, B and C); the Israeli Civil Administration, which, if an Area C project is permitted by the Joint Water Committee, pulls that project through a thicket of bureaucratic, technical limitations and scrutinies, effectively crippling its implementation if not grinding it to a halt completely; and, last but not least, the Israeli army, which ceaselessly continues, as it sees fit and irregardless of law, to demolish water wells, tankers, and infrastructure on the ground in Bedouin communities across Areas A, B and C, even if the proper permits are possessed.

Thus, what was promised under Oslo II to be consensus decision-making regarding water resources is in reality institutionalized unilateral control of the oppressor over the oppressed, and due to this matrix of Israeli control, it becomes nearly impossible for the Palestinian Authority, as well as most NGOs, to commit themselves to meaningful, sustainable infrastructural development in Area C of the West Bank.

At the level of the Joint Water Committee, details Ma’an’s ‘Draining Away’:

the fact that decisions are arrived at through consensus effectively means that Israel can veto Palestinian projects…[also], the PWA is not consulted regarding extractions from the aquifer for Israeli use (settlers or otherwise), which is not in accordance with the governance rules under Article 40. Nor does the Palestinian Authority have the right to access data on Israeli use of water resources, whereas Israel reserves the right for continual access to water resource data in the West Bank…around 150 water and sanitation projects are still pending JWC approval for “technical and security reasons”, while only one new Palestinian well project for the Western aquifer has been approved since 1993. In contrast, Israel is able to construct pipelines to its illegal settlements without going through the mechanism of the JWC. Thus Israel effectively has full control of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The World Bank’s 2009 report confirms the non-consensual reality of the Joint Water Committee’s supposed ‘consensus decision-making’-

[the] JWC has not fulfilled its role of providing a supportive governance framework for joint resource management and investment…politics and policy issues have limited the number of project approvals…fundamental asymmetries – of power, of capacity, of information – put into question the role of JWC as a “joint” institution…Israel takes unilateral water-related actions outside the JWC…only one third (by value) of projects presented to the JWC 2001-8 have been implemented…(1) the process is in general slow; (2) the rate of rejection of PA projects is high; (3) the PWA has almost never sought to reject Israeli projects (only one has not been approved); and (4) well drilling projects and – until very recently - wastewater projects have had very low rates of approval….in order to solicit approvals on vital emergency water needs, the PA is forced into positions that compromise its basic policy principles. Such an asymmetrical power balance (one party, Israel, has virtually all the power and is not driven by emergencies), together with the observed track record of the JWC, have contributed to a loss of trust and confidence and to very poor outcomes (for Palestinians) that undermine the rationale for the committee as a de facto “joint” approach to water sector management.

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