The Occupation of Water

The legacy of Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories has been systematic human rights violations on a mass scale. One of its most devastating consequences is the impact of Israel’s discriminatory policies on Palestinians’ access to adequate supplies of clean and safe water.

Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, in June 1967, the Israeli military authorities consolidated complete power over all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). 50 years on, Israel continues to control and restrict Palestinian access to water in the OPT to a level which neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources.

In November 1967 the Israeli authorities issued Military Order 158, which stated that Palestinians could not construct any new water installation without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army. Since then, the extraction of water from any new source or the development of any new water infrastructure would require permits from Israel, which are near impossible to obtain. Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation continue to suffer the devastating consequences of this order until today. They are unable to drill new water wells, install pumps or deepen existing wells, in addition to being denied access to the Jordan River and fresh water springs. Israel even controls the collection of rain water throughout most of the West Bank, and rainwater harvesting cisterns owned by Palestinian communities are often destroyed by the Israeli army. As a result, some 180 Palestinian communities in rural areas in the occupied West Bank have no access to running water, according to OCHA. Even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry.

Woman filling water jugs from a tap in the West Bank

Palestinian women fill bottles of water in the West Bank village of Qarawah Bani Zeid. © ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

While restricting Palestinian access to water, Israel has effectively developed its own water infrastructure and water network in the West Bank for the use of its own citizens in Israel and in the settlements – that are illegal under international law. The Israeli state-owned water company Mekorot has systematically sunk wells and tapped springs in the occupied West Bank to supply its population, including those living in illegal settlements with water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes. While Mekorot sells some water to Palestinian water utilities, the amount is determined by the Israeli authorities. As a result of continuous restrictions, many Palestinian communities in the West Bank have no choice but to purchase water brought in by trucks at a much high prices ranging from 4 to 10 USD per cubic metre. In some of the poorest communities, water expenses can, at times, make up half of a family’s monthly income.

The Israeli authorities also restrict Palestinians’ access to water by denying or restricting their access to large parts of the West Bank. Many parts of the West Bank have been declared “closed military areas”, which Palestinians may not enter, because they are close to Israeli settlements, close to roads used by Israeli settlers, used for Israeli military training or protected nature reserves.

Israeli settlers living alongside Palestinians in the West Bank – in some cases just a few hundred meters away – face no such restrictions and water shortages, and can enjoy and capitalize on well-irrigated farmlands and swimming pools.

In Gaza, some 90-95 per cent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Israel does not allow water to be transferred from the West Bank to Gaza, and Gaza’s only fresh water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population and is being increasingly depleted by over-extraction and contaminated by sewage and seawater infiltration.

The resulting disparity in access to water between Israelis and Palestinians is truly staggering. Water consumption by Israelis is at least four times that of Palestinians living in the OPT. Palestinians consume on average 73 litres of water a day per person, which is well below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended daily minimum of 100 litres per capita. In many herding communities in the West Bank, the water consumption for thousands of Palestinians is as low as 20 litres per person a day, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). By contrast, an average Israeli consumes approximately 300 litres of water a day.

50 years on, it is time for the Israeli authorities to put an end to policies and practices which discriminate against Palestinians in the OPT and to address their desperate need for water security. The Israeli authorities must lift the restrictions currently in place which deny millions of Palestinians access to sufficient water to meet their personal and domestic needs as well as to enjoy their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living.

A mural at a disused pumping station in the Jordan Valley

A mural painted on the wall of a disused pumping station beside route 90, the main highway which stretches the length of the Jordan Valley. The writing reads, ‘Our water is our life so let’s preserve it”. In the Jordan Valley numerous springs and wells have been made redundant as the Mountain Aquifer on the western edge of the valley is increasingly exploited by the Israeli-state owned company Mekorot. © Amnesty International

Devastating toll on communities in the Jordan valley

In September 2017 Amnesty International researchers met with residents of the Jordan Valley and witnessed first-hand the catastrophic impact the water restrictions have had on people’s daily lives.

Ihab Saleh, a squash and cucumber farmer living in Ein al-Beida, a Palestinian village of about 1,600 people located in the northern part of the West Bank, is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by Israeli water restrictions. Over the past 25 years he has seen the local spring gradually dry up after the Israeli company Mekorot drilled two wells near the neighbouring Palestinian community of Bardala, to serve Mehola, an Israeli settlement. The amount of water the Israeli authorities allocate to the village has been decreasing over the years, he says, and has been fully cut off on numerous occasions. Despite an agreement to compensate the Palestinian villages of Bardala and Ein al-Beida, since the mid-1970s, Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water available to both communities. 

Ihab Saleh a Palestinian cucumber farmer with his son

Ihab Saleh recounted to Amnesty International researchers how, at the beginning of September 2017, Israeli authorities cut the water supply to the village for five days claiming that residents had taken more than allotted to them through unauthorized means. Ihab’s crops died due to this cut-off, with damages to his business of around 10,000 NIS (approximately 2,820 USD). He says there was no notice before the supply was cut, and there was no drinking water for any of the residents who had to travel five km to a neighbouring village to bring water in trucks. © Amnesty International “In this village we want peace, whatever the Palestinian Authority says – we do. Whatever the Israeli army says – we do…. all we want to do is farm our land,” he told Amnesty International.

Two Mekorot pumping stations outside the village of Bardala

One of two Mekorot pumping stations outside the village of Bardala. These pumping stations have caused springs in the villages of Ein al-Beida and Bardala to dry up completely, forcing the Palestinian community to be entirely reliant on the Israeli state-owned company for their domestic and agricultural water provision. © Amnesty International

In addition to the farming villages, many Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley face severe restrictions as a consequence of Israel’s control of Palestinian natural water resources. Often the land they live on is designated by Israel as a “closed military area”. Not only is their access to water limited, they also live under the constant threat of forced evictions through demolition orders on their homes and properties.

Water glasses

Two families living beside highway 90 near the village of Ein Al-Beida have had their houses and property destroyed twice in the last two years. Most recently, in December 2016, the Israeli army destroyed two home structures and all of the water tanks belonging to the families. 

Water filling point in Palestine

Since Israeli authorities do not recognise the right of many Palestinian communities to live in Area C and refuse to allow them the necessary infrastructure, these families have no access to running water even though a Mekorot pipeline runs along the side of the highway less than 100 meters from their land. To get water they must go twice a day to the local water filling point run by the Mekorot company. © Amnesty International

In al-Auja, a village of about 5,200 people, 10 kilometres north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, the situation is much the same. In 1972, Mekorot sunk a well and established a pumping station, close to the Wadi Auja spring. According to residents, the spring used to provide a plentiful supply of water to the village and surrounding agricultural land via a series of irrigation channels. 

A dry irrigation channel in Palestine

The irrigation channels now lie empty. A villager shows Amnesty International’s researcher a photo of the spring before it dried up. He explains how, in the early 1990s, there was year-round water supporting a prosperous farming community, one of the highest fruit producing areas in the Jordan Valley. © Amnesty International

Issa Nijoum is a former citrus farmer from Al-Auja who now only grows less water intensive crops such as squash and cucumber

Issa Nijoum is a former citrus farmer from Al-Auja who now only grows less water intensive crops such as squash and cucumber. In 2017, he only had access to water for 40 days during the growing season, which usually falls from February to March, and the squash crops were ruined. He explained that usually his crops require 120 days of water a year. © Amnesty International

Remnants of a ruined squash crop

The remnants of Issa Nijoum’s ruined crop of squash, in a field on the outskirts of the village of Al-Auja. © Amnesty International

Due to water shortages, farmers in Al-Auja were forced to diversify from their traditional livelihoods, and now grow crops that are less water-intensive and also less profitable. While in the past they grew mainly citrus fruit and were capable of exporting them, they rely now on less water intensive vegetable crops such as zucchini, cucumber and squash, which can sustain a cultivation period of three to four months through the winter season. Many residents of Al-Auja have also been forced to find work in farms located in three neighbouring Israeli settlements, which have unrestricted access to water.

A Local Council member from the village of Al-Auja holds a small lime

A Local Council member from the village of Al-Auja holds a lime, which is not fully grown. He explains how, since the mid-1990s, lime trees have produced increasingly smaller fruits and yields due to lack of water. © Amnesty International

Israeli settlements access to water

Swimming Pool in Ma’ale Adumim

Swimming Pool in Ma’ale Adumim. With water supply roughly four times greater than that provided to Palestinian communities, Israeli settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim stand in stark contrast to their Palestinian neighbours. © Amnesty International

Lush vegetation in the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim

Lush vegetation in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. With a population of 37,670, the settlement is one of the largest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. © Amnesty International

Grape harvest in the Israeli settlement of Psagot, July 2017

Grape harvest in the Israeli settlement of Psagot, July 2017. The winery at Psagot was founded in 2003 and according to its official website, produces around 350,000 bottles of wine a year, 70 percent of which is exported internationally. Grapes are high value, water intensive crops. © David Silverman/Getty Images

An Israeli settlement date farm close to the village of Al-Auja, in the Jordan Valley

An Israeli settlement date farm close to the village of Al-Auja, in the Jordan Valley, 21 September, 2017. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods produced in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land are exported internationally each year, despite the fact that the vast majority of states have officially condemned the settlements as illegal under international law. © Amnesty International

A water filling point on the outskirts of the village of Al-Auja in the Jordan Valley

A water filling point on the outskirts of the village of Al-Auja in the Jordan Valley. For Palestinians with no access to running water the situation is dire. To meet their basic needs, they have no choice but to purchase additional water from tankers, usually twice a day. The water is often of dubious quality and is more expensive than that supplied through the water network. © Amnesty International

Qais Nasaran a store owner from Al-Jiftlik, a village with an estimated population of approximately 4,700, located in the northern Jordan Valley, used to farm a small plot of land. After his well dried up, he has been forced to find a new way to make a living. He now runs a grocery store.

Qais Nasaran a store owner from Al-Jiftlik

The store is located in an old pump house for a well which was sunk in 1966 with permission from the Jordanian authorities who controlled the West Bank at the time. A year later, after Israel occupied the Palestinian territories, the Israeli authorities stopped Qais Nasaran’s family from using it. There was water in the well until 2014 when it finally dried up. Qais explained how, each year, when the well was full, the Israeli military would check to see no one was using it. 

A dried up well in Palestine

Qais still owns a cistern on his land, but cannot always afford to fill it as it costs around 8,000 NIS (approximately 2,278 USD). He buys his water from a landowner in the Jordan Valley.

For Mustafa Al-Farawi, a date farmer from Al-Jiftlik, the situation is similar. The amount of water available from the well on his land has been decreasing steadily over the years.

Mustafa Al-Farawi, a date farmer from Al-Jiftlik

He explains that, in the 1980’s, the well would provide enough water to irrigate an area of 1,000 acres, and provide water for the animals, as well as supporting the family. Now the majority of water used for his date farm has to be bought and transported with a water tank from a spring 7km away, which is the only spring that can still be accessed by Palestinians.

Mustafa on his farm

In recent years, Mustafa wanted to sink a new well at a different location that would guarantee more water. He says that an engineer came to check and there was water closer to ground level on another part of the farm’s land. He applied for drilling rights but the Israeli authorities denied the application. Eventually he decided to sink the well anyway without permission, but the Israeli army came and prevented him from doing so. He was told that sinking the well was against Israeli military orders and the construction was halted.

The village of Furush Beit Dajan, in the northern West Bank with a population of about 930, used to be a producer of citrus fruit. From the mid 1990’s, farmers have had to diversify their crops due to insufficient water supplies.

Farms in the village of Furush Beit Dajan

The villagers say that they used to have an abundance of water but in recent years the wells have been supplying less and less. Residents of the village mentioned that the aquifer is being exhausted by Israeli wells used to supply the neighbouring Israeli settlements of Hamra and Mehora. According to Azim Mifleh, a farmer from the village, Israeli wells started pumping in the vicinity of the village in the 1970’s and slowly the local wells lost their efficiency. Since the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995, Israel has extracted far in excess of the agreed quantity of water from the Eastern Aquifer.

Azim Mifleh, a farmer and coordinator for the Agricultural Development Association (PARC) from Furush Bei Dajan, says he used to have 800 trees on his land; mostly lemon and grapefruit. Now he only has two trees left next to the house.

Azim Mifleh

Azim Mifleh had to diversify and grow crops in greenhouses. Most of the crops he now grows, including cucumbers, tomatoes and squash, can only be cultivated in the winter and spring seasons. © Amnesty International

A no water button

There are five water wells in the vicinity of Furush Beit Dajan village- all are privately owned by Palestinians. According to residents from the village, they have suffered drastic decreases in their output of water due to Israeli wells being sunk in the area to supply the settlement of Hamra, which farms an extensive area of land. The settlement of Hamra has a 100 acre date farm and also harvests water-intensive crops such as bananas and citrus fruits.

Palestinian tourists from Nablus pray in an abandoned lido near the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley

Palestinian tourists from Nablus pray in an abandoned lido near the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley. Since 1967, the Israeli authorities have denied Palestinians access to the Jordan River has been restricted entirely along its whole course through the West bank. Water levels in the Dead Sea have fallen dramatically over the past 50 years due to diversion of the river Jordan up stream by Israel as well as Jordan and Syria. The Dead Sea now lies around half a kilometre away from the lido when once it surrounded it. © Amnesty International

The right to water has been recognized as being derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, and therefore implicitly contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other instruments. The right to water includes availability of sufficient water for personal and domestic uses, physical access within or in the immediate vicinity of each household, affordability, and adequate quality of water. States must prioritize, as part of their immediate obligations, access for everyone to the minimum essential amount of water that is sufficient and safe for personal and domestic uses to prevent disease. States have to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realization of the right to water, including by taking positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right.

Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power in the OPT, has well defined responsibilities to respect the Palestinians’ human right to water. It must not only refrain from taking actions that violate this right or undermine the Palestinian population’s opportunity to realize the right, but also protect the Palestinian population from interference by third parties in their enjoyment of the right to water, and it must take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to ensure that this right is fulfilled and fully realized.