Water and collective punishment policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Water and collective punishment policies in the Occupied Palestinian TerritoryClosure of Al Issawiya neighborhood of Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Al-Haq.)

Al-Haq legal researchers said Israel controls the water resources of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) to its own benefit and has renewed its punitive demolition of the homes of alleged attackers there.

“Since 1967, Palestinians have not been able to drill any wells in the western basin of the mountain aquifer, which is the most productive basin. And they have been able to build only a handful of wells in the eastern basin.” Al-Haq researcher

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 21, 2017 — Speaking at the Center for Near Eastern Studies on March 15, 2017, two legal researchers from the Al-Haq human rights organization gave detailed presentations on the water and collective punishment policies used by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Both sets of policies, argued the U.S.-trained lawyers, contravene international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

“We feel these various practices are of interest to an American audience that is currently hearing rhetoric about using security to promote other aims,” said one of the speakers. The event was moderated by UCLA Professor of English Saree Makdisi.

Based in the West Bank, Al-Haq (www.alhaq.org) was founded in 1979 to document and monitor human rights violations and uphold the rule of law in the OPT. The organization is supported by numerous foundations and multilateral and bilateral donors.

Israel controls the water resources of OPT

Despite ample rainfall and three principal water sources (the Jordan River, a mountain aquifer and a coastal aquifer), “Palestinians suffer from insufficient access to water [in OPT] due to Israel’s near total control over this vital resource,” said the first Al-Haq researcher. That control, continued the speaker, enables it to both appropriate and divert OPT water resources to benefit Israel and its settlers in the West Bank.

“It is clear,” said the speaker, “that the water resources of the West Bank are a strategic asset for Israel and the placement of the settlements is also strategic — to ensure control over not just water, but other vital resources in the West Bank.”

The Israeli military, said the researcher, used a series of military orders to take control of all water resources in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip following the Six-Day War of 1967. One order (Military Order 158) made the construction of any water installation — such as a well, pump or irrigation system — in the area contingent on a permit granted by Israeli authorities. Without a permit, water infrastructure is subject to confiscation and demolition.

“These military orders are still in place today,” said the researcher. "In addition, Israel declared the banks of the lower Jordan River to be a closed military zone, denying Palestinian access and destroying the existing pumps and irrigation ditches in that area, on which Palestinian farmers relied,” she said. “Palestinians to this day do not have access to the Jordan River.”

As a military occupier, observed the researcher, Israel did not acquire sovereignty over OPT natural resources, nor the right to exploit them in a way that depletes those resources. Among other things, The Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention, she said, require Israel to respect laws and administrative rules in force in the occupied territory, to administer the occupied territory and its natural resources according to the rules of usufruct, and bar it from destroying private property except for reasons of military necessity. Under international human rights law, she continued, water is considered an integral element of the right to an adequate standard of living; a people’s right to self-determination is also understood to include sovereignty over its natural resources.

In 1982, military control of water resources in the OPT was transferred to Mekorot, the national water company of Israel, 50 percent of which is owned by the Israeli government. “This resulted in the integration of all Palestinian water resources, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with the Israeli system and their control by a single Israeli system,” said the speaker.

“Only 50 percent of Palestinian households in the West Bank are supplied water on a daily basis,” she noted. Mekorot, she added, frequently charges Palestinians more for water than it does Israeli settlers in the West Bank, uses much smaller-diameter pipes in Palestinian areas and routinely decreases and/or cuts off the water supply to Palestinian residents — especially in the summer months — in order to meet the demands of Israelis in West Bank settlements and in Israel. In the summer of 2016, observed the Al-Haq researcher, “The areas of Nablus and Salfit were specifically targeted and went without running water from Mekorot for about a month.”

The wells and pumping stations built by Israel and managed by Mekorot in the Jordan Valley mainly provide water to both Israeli residential and agricultural settlements, said the speaker. Israeli pumping stations regularly over-extract water from the aquifer, damaging the quality and quantity of available water. “Since 1967, Palestinians have not been able to drill any wells in the western basin of the mountain aquifer, which is the most productive basin,” the researcher commented. “And they have been able to build only a handful of wells in the eastern basin.”

The Water Sharing Agreement concluded along with the Oslo Accord II in 1995 merely consolidated Israeli control over West Bank water resources and institutionalized discrimination in how these resources are divided, as it was based on “existing quantities of utilization.” Israel, noted the speaker, uses about 89 percent of the mountain aquifer, leaving roughly 11 percent for Palestinian use.

The Palestinian Water Authority is responsible for supplying water to Palestinians in Areas A and B of the West Bank, where roughly 95 percent of the Palestinian population resides. However, said the researcher, the majority of the water infrastructure on which these areas depend are located in or cross over into Area C, which is under full Israeli control.

“This means that any drilling, rehabilitation or building of any kind in Area C requires a permit from the Israeli civil administration and these permits are rarely, if ever, granted,” said the Al-Haq researcher. Because of this difficulty, Palestinians frequently build water structures without permits that are then destroyed by Israeli authorities.

Rainwater harvesting pool in Jericho prior to destruction, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Al-Haq.)

In 2016, said the speaker, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded the highest-ever volume of destruction of Palestinian structures since it began documenting demolitions in 2009. The researcher cited a number of examples, including the destruction by Israeli forces of a rain harvesting pool created by Palestinian farmers in Area C in 2015 for the purpose of sharing captured rainwater.

Rainwater harvesting pool in Jericho being filled with dirt by the Israeli military, 2015.
(Photo courtesy of Al-Haq.)

Over 500,000 Israeli settlers residing in the West Bank enjoy six times the water that the 2.6 million Palestinian in the area enjoy, added the researcher. And whereas Israelis in the Jordan Valley spend roughly 0.9 percent of their monthly income on water, Palestinians spend 50 percent. The situation in Gaza, reliant on a single shared coastal aquifer, is even worse: some 95 percent of the available water is unfit for human consumption due to over-extraction and contamination. 

Israel, observed the researcher, is now marketing itself globally as a water technology leader, yet fails to disclose that it has appropriated Palestinian water resources in the OPT.

Collective punishment policies

The second researcher from Al-Haq spoke on policies of collective punishment used by Israel in the OPT. Since October 2015, said the speaker, Israeli cabinet measures have authorized the closure of areas of “friction” in Jerusalem, punitive home demolitions and the confiscation of the property of alleged attackers, and punitive residency revocations.

In addition, said the researcher, Israel uses concrete blocks and flying checkpoints to regularly seal off villages in the West Bank, including neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. These measures impede free movement and in some cases may have caused lethal delays in medical treatment. “The most extreme form of restriction of movement can be seen in Gaza,” remarked the speaker, “which is entering its tenth year of closure.”

The Al-Haq legal researcher spoke extensively about the holding of Palestinian bodies by Israel. Generally, these are people who were killed by Israeli forces after alleged attacks, many claims of which have conflicted with eyewitness testimony or remain unsubstantiated. Since 2015, 135 bodies (51 of which were those of young people under the age of 20) have been held for varying periods, said the Al-Haq researcher.

The terms of release imposed on families, said the speaker, typically include a limitation on the number of attendees at the funeral, immediate burial after a body is transferred, a financial guarantee in tens of thousands of shekels to abide by release conditions, and in certain cases, dictating the cemetery to be used.

These conditions, observed the researcher, serve both to pressure families and to preclude autopsies. The speaker noted that the UN Committee against Torture has called on Israel to release Palestinian bodies as soon as possible, remarking that the practice violates both the UN Convention against Torture and international humanitarian law.

Turning to home demolitions, the researcher noted that such demolitions can be either administrative (i.e., because a building permit was not issued) or punitive (i.e., in retaliation for someone allegedly taking part in what Israel defines as a terrorist attack), but sometimes occur together. Al-Haq documented 25 punitive demolitions in the West Bank in 2016, which displaced 125 individuals. In 12 of those cases, said the speaker, the alleged perpetrator was already dead.

“Israel says punitive measures are taken to prevent future attacks,” noted the researcher, but argued that the reverse was true, citing the example of a man who launched an attack after seeing the home of a relative (a co-perpetrator of a previous attack) demolished. In fact, the speaker noted that Israel itself had previously reached the same conclusion. In 2005, the “Shani” Committee [named in honor of its head, Major-General Udi Shani] of the Israel Defense Forces conducted research on punitive demolitions and concluded that they did not achieve the goal of deterrence. The practice was subsequently suspended for nearly 10 years, said the researcher, but revived again in 2014.

The legal researcher pointed out the Israeli High Court of Justice has ruled that punitive demolitions severely violate the fundamental rights of uninvolved inhabitants and are contrary to the principle of a child’s best interests; however, the High Court rarely revokes demolition orders. And in 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that no interpretation of humanitarian law would permit punitive demolitions.

Punitive revocations of residency permits are also being increasingly used, including against family members of people who allegedly launch attacks in the OPT. Such a practice is in addition to Israel’s “center-of-life” policy, which has facilitated the revocation of the “permanent residency” status of over 14,000 Palestinian East Jerusalemites.

The detailed presentations of the two speakers were followed by a question-and-answer session.

Speaker names have been withheld at their request as a precaution against possible entry and travel restrictions to/from Israel and the OPT.

Published: Tuesday, March 21, 2017