Tuesday, October 27, 2009

West Bank water

Amnesty International is in the news today, with a report that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are being starved of water by Israel.

This reminded me of an old Globe and Mail article by Paul Koring, which appeared on May 8, 2002. It's no longer on-line, but I saved a copy of it, and I am reproducing it here in its entirety to show that this little problem has been around for a while.

Palestinian village is dying without reliable water source
The amount in settlers' pools would supply farming village for months, PAUL KORING is told


BEIT FURIQ, WEST BANK -- Working amid a fetid stench, Mohammed Nassara gathered the dead chickens from among the merely listless and dying yesterday, and threw them wearily on to a mounting pile, another grim symbol of the bitter clash of cultures in the parched land west of the Jordan River.

Beit Furiq, a poverty-stricken Palestinian village, has a timeless history of sheep herding and tending the olive groves that climb the rocky hillsides up to imposing Israeli settlements on the heights above. Beit Furiq is dying
of thirst.

The village's farmers need 50 truckloads of water a day during the summer, when their wells run dry, but their water shipments have been blocked by Israeli checkpoints for the past month.

"Yesterday, one truck made it, today none," Atef Hanini, the village mayor said as he used some precious spring water to make coffee for rare visitors to the town.

The settlements, he said, pointing to the modern houses of Itamar and Eilon Moreh on the heights above, "have swimming pools with enough water to satisfy Beit Furiq for two or three months." A thick Israeli pipeline lifts
water to the settlements.

Water, even more than land, has become a key battleground in the struggle being steadily lost by the Palestinians and won by the Israelis.

Although only 250,000 Jewish settlers live in scattered, fortified communities in the West Bank, among more than two million Palestinians, 80 per cent of West Bank water is consumed by Israelis.

For years, Mr. Hanini has begged the Palestinian water authority (which needs permission from the Israeli military) to dig deeper wells in search of ever-shrinking aquifers, so that the farmers of his village won't have to
buy it from Nablus and haul it in by tractor and truck.

Without trucked water, the 60,000 chickens that are the livelihood for about 50 of Beit Furiq's several hundred families will die within days. Then the sheep.

"I'm losing between 70 and 100 chickens a day," said Mr. Nassara, a 31-year-old stone mason who turned to raising poultry when he lost his job 20 months ago, as did hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, when the current intifada (uprising) began and the economy began to collapse.

Last summer, the tensions between Beit Furiq and the settlements on the high ground nearly spun out of control.

A handful of Beit Furiq farmers tapped into the water pipe and secretly diverted water for days until they were caught by Israeli army patrols.

Mr. Hanini, 41, admits that the water problems can't all be blamed on Israeli consumption, although the settlements never run short.

"Fifty years ago, our population was much smaller, our grandmothers used to be happy with one bucket of water and now we want 40," he said.

What he finds galling is that his village is prohibited from drilling wells, is beholden to Israeli authorities about where it can go to buy water and, now, can't even get permission for its water trucks to move through Israeli

"The Israelis control every facet of our lives," Mr. Hanini said.

On good days, and there haven't been any for months, truck driver Saed Maktat can make seven round trips from Nablus to the village, driving 12 hours a day and clearing about $10 a trip.

"On bad days, when the checkpoints are choked or the Israelis are being difficult, I can spend 12 hours making one 15-kilometre round trip to Nablus," he said.

Eking out a living in the agrarian villages of the West Bank has never been easy.

But even those like Mr. Hanini, who left to go to university in Bethlehem but came back to work the land of his forefathers, refuse to consider leaving.

"This is where I was born, my family is here, my clan is here, everything related to my life is here.

"No matter how bad it gets, I'd rather die here than leave Beit Furiq," he said, adding that he hopes his four children will stay.

Mr. Hanini traces Beit Furiq's water troubles back to its refusal to co-operate when the first of the settlements was established in the 1970s, after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"We are being punished," he said.

Relations are hostile. Mr. Hanini has never spoken to a settler and none have come to the village.

Two years ago, after the most recent settlement expansion, he went to harvest the olives in a grove that now abuts the fortified fence surrounding Itamar. "A settler in long religious robes threw stones at me, and when I
refused to leave, he went to his car and came back with a gun." He has never gone back.

Mr. Nassara's family also has an olive grove, but he is too frightened to go there.

As he toiled among his dying chickens, trying to make a living for his own and his brother's family, he explained why.

"A settler shot and killed my brother, Farid Musa, when he went to pick the olives last October."


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