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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 05:38 GMT 06:38 UK
Water war leaves Palestinians thirsty
The West Bank, with the River Jordan top right
The River Jordan (white line, top right) is a crucial water source in the region
Like many other things in the region, water is in hot dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Under international law, Israel is committed to supplying drinking water to the Palestinians and not denying them.

But Israel itself is a very arid area surrounded by desert. It rains only a few months a year - and for the past few years the region has been in the grip of drought.

"We have a chronic water shortage, and it is getting worse year to year," Jacob Kaidar, the director of multilateral peace talks coordination and water issues in the Israeli foreign ministry, told BBC World Service's Politics Of Water programme.

"Basically we have a drought almost every year, we have to cut our water supplies almost every year."


The water that Israel receives comes mainly from the Jordan river system, the Sea of Galilee and two underground sources.

The supply is shared between Israelis and Palestinians, but, as ever, is a source of great controversy.

At the Third World Water Conference in Kyoto, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outlined the history of water conflict around the world.

He said there had been 21 armed disputes over water in recent history - and 18 of them involved Israel.

"It's highly unfair," said Yehezkel Lein, a water expert for Israeli human rights group B'tselem, who help to solve water problems in Palestinian areas.

"We are talking about mainly the mountain aquifer and the Jordan River system. Regarding the first one Israel exploits approximately 80% of the renewal water resources, and the Palestinians the remaining 20%.

"Regarding the Jordan River system, the Palestinians do not have any access."

Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee can supply parts of Israel, but not the Palestinian areas
Mr Lein added that the conflict in the region had dramatically exacerbated the problem.

"There is a clear linkage between the gap in water availability, and the occupation," he said.

"Israel has taken advantage of its control of the West Bank in order to appropriate more water sources and to prevent Palestinians from developing new water sources that are under the land."

Israel has controlled water supplies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since it first occupied the areas in 1967.

The 1993 Oslo Peace Accord stated that the Palestinians should have more water resources and greater control, although the Israelis disagree, insisting they supply 40 million cubic metres of water.

Many Palestinians struggle, however, as they remain unconnected to any water infrastructure.

Checkpoint controversy

One such place is Beit Furik, a village in the West Bank near the Palestinian town of Nablus.

"The real problem is at the beginning of their hot summer - they will have used up their water and they will begin to suffer," explained Beit Furik's Mayor, Atef Atif Hanani.

"We have about 12 tanks to collect water from Nablus, but during the Intifada the Israeli authorities have imposed checkpoints on the roads.

"These checkpoints started to forbid these tanks from reaching Nablus, so sometimes they have to wait for about five or six hours - and some days they were forbidden."

He added that even when the tanks were allowed through, sometimes Israeli soldiers would undo the valves and let the water back out.

Israel's Water Minister Mr Kaidar said he was "not happy" about a lack of co-operation, acknowledging that turning water trucks away was "totally unacceptable."

"Israel is committed to supplying drinking water to the Palestinians, and not to deny them," he added.

But Jacob Dallal of the Israel army said that delays were unfortunate, but necessary to stop the militants.

Israeli soldier
Oxfam says Israeli soldiers target Palestinian water tanks
"This is the nature of this conflict when people are trying to smuggle things including suicide bombers through the West Bank and into Israel," he said.

"We have to be very careful, but at no time lose sight of the importance of getting essential materials to people.

"We do have to check because in the past, as has been the case with ambulances, people have taken advantage of vehicles that are supposed to be only for humanitarian purposes."

Some statistics suggest that, in large part because of these constant arguments at checkpoints, the Palestinians use on average four times less water than the Israelis.

Illegal wells

The mother of one family in Beit Furik, Fuaz Hanani, told Politics Of Water that they were only able to wash every two weeks, such was the shortage of water.

"I feel angry that Israeli settlers in Itmar drink clean water while my dear family drink water from a well which sometimes has dirty or polluted water," Mrs Hanani said.

However, Jacob Kaidar insisted that, while he hoped co-operation between the two sides would be better in the future, Mrs Hanani should direct her anger towards her own people.

He said Palestinians were stealing water from Israeli pipes and drilling illegal wells.

"In Gaza we have some 2,000 illegal wells, in the West Bank the report is 250 or more," he said.

According to Oxfam, an additional problem is that what little infrastructure the Palestinians do have is targeted by the Israelis.

"We are helping very poor families to build new tanks on their roofs... unfortunately it's a really good target for Israeli soldiers to shoot at," Oxfam's Ton Berg stated.

"We've just finished a really big water tank that would serve half a village in El Boursh and now the Israeli defence forces have announced that they will destroy it, because they need land that is officially Palestinian to build a wall.

"So that whole village this summer will again be without clean drinking water."

With the publication of the roadmap to peace, there had been hopes that political leaders would begin to look more closely at the water crisis in the region.

But with the roadmap apparently in crisis, it seems the Palestinians may be thirsty for a good while longer.


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