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Occupying Palestinian Water

There are few crimes more despicable than stealing your neighbour’s water, and polluting what’s left, then watching him and his children suffer thirst, disease and ruin. Most of us would want nothing to do with the perpetrators of such evil.

British Water describes itself as the voice of the water industry. It talks about best practice and corporate responsibility, and lobbies governments and regulators on behalf of its members. No doubt it does a good job. It also has international ambitions including in the Middle East. So presumably it knows what’s going on water-wise in the Holy Land.

British Water should know, for example, that the 400-mile long structure known worldwide as Israel’s Apartheid Wall bites deep into the Palestinian West Bank dividing and isolating communities and stealing their lands and water.

If the wall was simply for security, as Israel claims, it would have been built along the internationally-recognised 1949 Armistice Green Line, although not even this is an official border. The wall’s purpose is plainly to annex plum Palestinian land and water resources for illegal Israeli settlements, and to that end it closely follows the line of the Western Aquifer.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that the construction of the wall is “contrary to international law” and Israel must dismantle it and make reparation for damage caused. The ICJ also ruled that “all states are under an obligation not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction”.

But the wall marches on, aided by American tax dollars and America’s protective veto, so that Israel can wield complete control over the water resources it sees as necessary to the regime’s present and future needs. This makes the Palestinians, who sit on top of enough water to be self-sufficient, entirely dependent on Israel for God’s life-giver. Israel also consumes most of the water from the Jordan River despite only three per cent of the river falling within its pre-1967 borders. Palestinians now have no access to it whatsoever due to Israeli closures.

Most of the Coastal Aquifer, on which Gaza’s inhabitants rely for water, is contaminated by sewage and nitrates, and is unfit for human consumption. Children particularly are at great risk. The aquifer is depleted and in danger of collapse. The damage could take generations to reverse, say experts.

During Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) in 2008-09 over 30km of water networks were damaged or destroyed in addition to 11 wells. A UN fact-finding mission (the Goldstone Report) considered the destruction “deliberate and systematic”. Proper repairs have been impossible these last three years because Israel blocks the import of spare parts.

“Thirsting for Justice” is an aptly-named campaign by the Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene group, a coalition of 30 Palestinian and European humanitarian organisations, including Oxfam. It calls on European governments to put pressure on Israel to respect international law and the Palestinians’ basic rights to water and sanitation.

Under the warped arrangements of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1995) Palestinians are only allowed to extract 20 per cent of the “estimated potential” of the mountain aquifer beneath the West Bank. Israel not only takes the balance (80 per cent) but overdraws its sustainable yield often by more than 50 per cent. A Joint Water Committee was set up to implement the agreement but Israel was given veto power and the final say on decisions. As a result, a number of essential projects for Palestinians have been denied or delayed. To make up for part of the supply shortfall, Palestinians are forced to buy water from the Israeli national water company Mekorot, some of which is extracted from wells within the Palestinian West Bank. In other words they are having to buy their own water, and at inflated prices.

Oxfam, which is very active on the ground in Gaza, confirms that 90-95 per cent of water from Gaza’s only source, the Coastal Aquifer, is undrinkable. At the current rate the aquifer will be unusable by 2016 and the damage irreversible by 2020.

Gaza residents are restricted to an average of 91 litres of water per day compared to 280 litres used by Israelis. 100-150 litres a day are required to meet health needs, says the World Health Organisation. Marginalised Palestinian communities in the West Bank survive on less than 20 litres per capita per day, the minimum amount recommended by WHO to sustain life in an emergency.

Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are said to have full legal rights to nearly 750 million cubic metres of water but they have to make do with a trickle, or go without, while Israelis fill their swimming pools, sprinkle their lawns and wash their cars. In Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp the water is turned off for days. When the street taps come on again, usually for a few hours, there’s a desperate scramble to refill domestic tanks and other containers before the next cut.

Haaretz last month reported the French parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee findings on the geopolitical impact of water in confrontation zones like Israel-Palestine.

According to the report, water has become “a weapon serving the new apartheid. Some 450,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians that live there. In times of drought, in contravention of international law, the [illegal] settlers get priority for water”.

Israel is waging a “water occupation” against the Palestinians, says the report accusing the Israelis of “systematically destroying wells that were dug by Palestinians on the West Bank” as well as deliberately bombing reservoirs in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. Furthermore, “many water purification facilities planned by the Palestinian Water Ministry are being blocked by the Israeli administration.”

Head of the Palestinian Water Authority Shaddad Attili observed: “Palestinians need to be able to access and control our rightful share of water in accordance with international law. The Oslo Accords did not achieve this. Without water, and without ensuring Palestinian water rights, there can be no viable or sovereign Palestinian state.”

Not content with robbing the Palestinians of their water, the Israelis are in the habit of flooding Palestinian fields and villages with untreated sewage from their hilltop settlements.

Against this background British Water has decided to cooperate with MATIMOP, an Israeli government agency that has been ordered to enter into international agreements and “aggressively expand opportunities for Israel’s industry”.

Always eager to oblige, the UK Trade and Investment Department’s briefing on Environment Opportunities in Israel contains this advice: “Israeli companies are keen to form alliances with companies abroad, and this is where the UK can benefit. In addition, growing development and marketing costs compel Israeli environmental companies to seek cooperation with foreign partners. The UK are world leaders in many aspects of the environment and so the UK and Israel complement each other and have much to offer each other in this sector. Teaming up with Israeli environment companies will give UK companies access to innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. UK companies can also benefit by providing their experience in marketing and management for Israeli companies.”

British Water signed a Memorandum of Understanding with MATIMOP on 21 December, so close to the Christmas holidays that it went unnoticed here. The event was not even recorded on British Water’s website but it was proudly featured on the embassy of Israel site and treated by the Israeli press as a triumph. MATIMOP calls it “a strategic cooperation agreement”. Executive Director Israel Shamay said: “We are pleased to be working closer with British Water than we have worked with any foreign trade organisation before. The UK water sector is well respected internationally for its world-leading capabilities, solutions and services, making it the perfect partner to help commercialise and market Israeli innovation and R&D in this sector.”

British Water agreed the text for an announcement by the Embassy of Israel but didn’t release it themselves, apparently happy for Tel Aviv’s propaganda boys to take care of it. In the press release MATIMOP says: “Israel has been coping with water scarcity since its founding.” Yes, coping by thieving.

The Palestinians have been subjected to the longest and most brutal military occupation in modern times and are held prisoner within the fragmented remnants of their own country, unable to develop its resources or travel freely within it to find work, attend university, visit family, or worship at their holy places in Jerusalem. Is helping Israel to become a water superpower really the right thing for British Water to be doing?

British Water’s CEO David Neil-Gallacher was asked: “EU agreements require Israel to show “respect for human rights and democratic principles” and provide for the agreement to be suspended otherwise. Does the MATIMOP agreement include similar good behaviour conditions?”

His reply: “The agreement with MATIMOP is a Memorandum of Understanding. Both parties are professional organisations with admirable aims and objectives.”

Another question: “British Water will be aware that Israel illegally occupies its neighbour Palestine and has seized control of its water resources. The path of Israel’s 400-mile separation wall closely follows the line of the Western Aquifer and encloses key supplies. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the construction of the wall in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is ‘contrary to international law’ and ‘all states are under an obligation not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction’. In the circumstances, should ethically-minded British companies allow themselves to become embroiled?”

Neil-Gallacher was unfazed: “I’m not sure what you mean by ’embroiled’ or ‘ethically-minded’. The aim of the MoU is for businesses to work together for the good of the global water industry. It’s no part of our role to exchange philosophical concepts with you. The arrangement with MATIMOP is one of commercial intent for the benefit of UK and Israeli companies.”

Finally, “is British Water being evenhanded in this Holy Land confrontation zone? Are you offering help to the Palestinian Water Authority? Have you responded positively to the sea-water desalination project for Gaza and other programmes for West Bank towns and villages?”

Neil-Gallacher: “We notify our member companies of potential commercial opportunities wherever they may arise, leaving them — as they’re best-qualified — to weigh the relative attractiveness of different markets.”

David Neil-Gallacher is also Director-General of Aqua Europa, which does the same sort of job on a Europe-wide basis. This was his parting shot:

“Regions of tension are bound to engender strong views and conflicting principles, and it’s usually notoriously difficult to discern unequivocal moral ascendancy on the part of any of those involved. In my dealings with our companies active in the region, however, I’ve never seen any evidence that they are lacking in principle or moral locus. British Water’s perspective has to be a commercial one. We do our best to conduct our activities in the best interests of our part of British industry and strictly within the requirements of the law.”

How will British Water avoid complicity with Israel’s endless oppression of the Palestinians and the deadly strife with its other neighbours in the region? Perhaps Neil-Gallacher should ask one of his own member companies, Veolia, what can happen if caught up in Israeli projects that violate international law. Veolia dumps Israeli waste on Palestinian land and is helping to build and run a tramway connecting Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements. The company must rue the day it crossed the line to fall foul of those nice folks at BDS — the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement.

Stuart Littlewood writes for Al Ahram Weekly.

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