The Palestinian Struggle for Water in the Jordan Valley

Speaking to the American Congress in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked that Israel would maintain a long-term presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. In the months that followed, the Israeli army stepped up its attacks on the water wells of the Palestinians who live there.

On November 14th, two water wells were demolished in Baqa’a, east of Tammun, robbing hundreds of families of the ability to irrigate their land. On October 13, farmers received demolition orders on several water wells in Kufr al-Deek, a village in the town of Salfit near Nablus. In September, Israeli military forces demolished 6 water wells belonging to Palestinian Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, and have threatened to demolish six more. In all these cases, the unilateral IOF actions are explicitly illegal because these wells were built with full permission from the Palestinian Authority, in areas of the Valley supposedly under exclusive Palestinian civil and military control.

The injustice is especially pronounced in the Jordan Valley. On the 8th of September, 50 military jeeps, trucks and bulldozers sealed off Al Nasarayah as a closed military zone, and proceeded to illegally destroy 3 water wells and confiscate the attached water systems, the pumps of which cost $40,000 each to install. Five days later, the IOF returned to Al Nasarayah to demolish 2 more wells, stopping along the way to destroy another well east of Tamoun. The next day, IOF soldiers entered the village of Al- Fa’ara, near Nablus, to photograph and record the GPS coordinates of 6 more wells intended for demolition.

The IOF’s actions are illegal under Israeli, Palestinian and international law because these 6 water wells had permits from the Palestinian Authority, and operated in the 5% of the Jordan Valley designated after the 1994 Oslo Accords Area A, under full Palestinian civil and military control. The motives behind Israel’s actions on the ground, however, emerge into the light of day when seen in the context of other recent Israeli policy resolutions — a plan announced in September to uproot and transfer some 27,000 Bedouin out of Israel-controlled Area C in the West Bank (most Area C Bedouin live in the Jordan Valley), and a decision by the Settlement Division in early July to increase by 130% the land given to settlers for farming in the Jordan Valley, and to increase from 42 to 51 cubic meters per year the amount of water given to settlers to irrigate such farmland.

What do the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin water wells in the Jordan Valley, the transfer of Palestinian Bedouin citizens out of the Jordan Valley, and the expansion of land and water given to settlers in the Jordan Valley, all have in common? Together, they highlight the oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley that has typified Israeli policy since the Valley became occupied territory in 1967.

A focal point of this oppression — and a crucial locus of the Palestinian Bedouin struggle to resist the occupation and remain in their homeland — is the issue of water. For as Israel has seized absolute control over allocation and distribution of the resources of the 3 water aquifers under the West Bank for use on both sides of the Green Line, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, and especially the Bedouin population of the Jordan Valley, have seen the steady drying-up of the once-flowing springs around which they have built their villages, have found themselves unable to dig sufficient wells of their own because of crippling Israeli regulations, and have watched themselves become dependent on the exorbitant prices of their oppressor for access to so basic and indispensable a human right.

Far more than in the rest of the West Bank, the struggle over water for the Jordan Valley Bedouin is a struggle between life and death. The ‘draining away’ of Palestinian water rights in the Jordan Valley — to borrow the title of a 2010 report by Ma’an Development Center — has a long and tumultuous history. When the West Bank became occupied territory in 1967, the Israeli army established a military order to the effect that all West Bank water came under control of the state, and Israel’s national water carrier, Mekorot, seized water aquifers and developed wells throughout the West Bank to serve Israel and its newly expanding settlements. Between 1967 and the 1994 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Bedouin in the Jordan Valley saw first their land, and then their water, disappear behind the heavily-guarded gates of settlements, where settlers were granted ample supplies of the latter in order to make the former bloom.

The situation grew increasingly dire until a brief ray of hope in 1995, when Article 40 of the Oslo II agreements set an interim agreement, designed to be revised within five years (but still in effect to this day), whereby approximately one quarter of West Bank water resources would come under Palestinian Authority control, and a Joint Water Committee would be established, in the words of the 2009 World Bank report ‘Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Development: West Bank and Gaza’, “to oversee management of the aquifers, with decisions to be based on consensus between the two parties.”

However, Oslo brought with it new institutionalized systems of oppression. Since Oslo 1 in 1993 consigned 95% of the Jordan Valley to Area C status (under full Israeli and military control), neither the Area C Bedouin communities themselves, nor the Palestinian Authority, nor the constant swarm of international NGOs, can commence with unregulated construction of their own initiative, because, in the words of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a grassroots movement, “across Area C, access to basic services such as water is restricted through the debilitating permit system which is regulated by the Israeli Civil Administration. Obtaining a permit for any form of construction –even for water- is notoriously difficult, nay impossible. This prevents Palestinians from building new infrastructure, or from making improvements to existing facilities.”

Atop this blanket layer of oppression, which effectively and intentionally squelches all trace of community autonomy, the Palestinian Bedouin in the 95% of the Jordan Valley which is Area C are deprived of the ability to improve their access to water resources through three interlocking buereacratic systems of control — the Joint Water Committee, where a group of Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers permits or denies water access or rehabilitation projects proposed by the Palestinian Water Authority (for Areas A, B and C); the Israeli Civil Administration, which, if an Area C project is permitted by the Joint Water Committee, pulls that project through a thicket of bureaucratic, technical limitations and scrutinies, effectively crippling its implementation if not grinding it to a halt completely; and, last but not least, the Israeli army, which ceaselessly continues, as it sees fit and irregardless of law, to demolish water wells, tankers, and infrastructure on the ground in Bedouin communities across Areas A, B and C, even if the proper permits are possessed.

Thus, what was promised under Oslo II to be consensus decision-making regarding water resources is in reality institutionalized unilateral control of the oppressor over the oppressed, and due to this matrix of Israeli control, it becomes nearly impossible for the Palestinian Authority, as well as most NGOs, to commit themselves to meaningful, sustainable infrastructural development in Area C of the West Bank.

At the level of the Joint Water Committee, details Ma’an’s ‘Draining Away’, “the fact that decisions are arrived at through consensus effectively means that Israel can veto Palestinian projects… [also], the PWA is not consulted regarding extractions from the aquifer for Israeli use (settlers or otherwise), which is not in accordance with the governance rules under Article 40. Nor does the Palestinian Authority have the right to access data on Israeli use of water resources, whereas Israel reserves the right for continual access to water resource data in the West Bank… around 150 water and sanitation projects are still pending JWC approval for “technical and security reasons”, while only one new Palestinian well project for the Western aquifer has been approved since 1993. In contrast, Israel is able to construct pipelines to its illegal settlements without going through the mechanism of the JWC. Thus Israel effectively has full control of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

The World Bank’s 2009 report confirms the non-consensual reality of the Joint Water Committee’s supposed ‘consensus decision-making’ — “[the] JWC has not fulfilled its role of providing a supportive governance framework for joint resource management and investment… politics and policy issues have limited the number of project approvals…fundamental asymmetries — of power, of capacity, of information — put into question the role of JWC as a “joint” institution…Israel takes unilateral water-related actions outside the JWC… only one third (by value) of projects presented to the JWC 2001-8 have been implemented… (1) the process is in general slow; (2) the rate of rejection of PA projects is high; (3) the PWA has almost never sought to reject Israeli projects (only one has not been approved); and (4) well drilling projects and — until very recently -wastewater projects have had very low rates of approval… in order to solicit approvals on vital emergency water needs, the PA is forced into positions that compromise its basic policy principles. Such an asymmetrical power balance (one party, Israel, has virtually all the power and is not driven by emergencies), together with the observed track record of the JWC, have contributed to a loss of trust and confidence and to very poor outcomes (for Palestinians) that undermine the rationale for the committee as a de facto “joint” approach to water sector management.”

Deeb Abdelghafar, Director of Water Resources for the Palestinian Water Authority, relates how “we submitted our application two years ago to build two new production wells in the northern part of the Jordan Valley, [to supply] water for domestic and agricultural purposes, and we know that they have reviewed it, but up to now we have not gotten any response, and we are not optimistic… we have more than 80 agricultural wells that need to be rehabilitated in Jordan Valley, and we have had these wells in the JWC for more than 4 years, but unfortunately we could not get final approval from Joint Water Committee.”

Even if the Joint Water Committee approves a project, its effective implementation is crippled by the red tape of the Israeli Civil Administration. Abdelghafar continues: “the most difficult step in the process for us is the Civil Administration because there are more than 14 departments, and each department must approve on the project. So we can never get a project through the civil administration, because some departments approve and some do not.” Ayman Rabi, Assistant Director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group for Water and Environmental Resources Development, an NGO working to improve access to water and sanitation services in the Occupied Palestinian territories. echoes Abdelghafar’s frustrations that “there is a big problem now in implementing anything in Area C, and that is one of the major hindrances right now to our work in that area….we have to ask [for a] permit and this generally we do through Palestinian Authority, and then they are applying through the Joint Water Committee… [but] even if the Joint Water Committee approves any intervention or project, the Israeli Civil Administration requests more documentation procedures, the process is longer, they put more conditions for implementation in Area C, so you might end up not implementing any activity because of this long and complicated procedure.” The World Bank report quotes an anonymous donor who reports the same difficulties- “first thing we request is a letter from PWA approving the project. Then we go to the JWC. But then we have to go to the Civil Administration – and there delays of 2-3 years are normal. In fact, we have no positive outcomes for Area C.”

Since nearly every proposal for the construction of water infrastructure in Area C is shut down by the twin juggernauts of the Joint Water Committee and the Israeli Civil Administration, NGOs must focus their efforts, to quote Abdelghafar, on “civil emergency intervention — by delivering small water tankers, by supplying them with water tanks, by constructing rainwater cisterns — it’s emergency humanitarian relief.” While important, this small-scale aid is carried out in lieu of large-scale, long-term projects that would strike at the root of the problem, rather than merely seeking to alleviate its effects. Says the World Bank report, “in the light of the difficulty of implementing major projects, the reasonable response has been short term emergency projects, often small projects with NGOs, and these smaller projects have become a very large part of water sector development… however, the multiplicity of small donors and multiple projects are more difficult to fit within a planning framework… NGOs have a comparative advantage in a grass roots field presence and a certain demand-driven character…[they are] nimble… but are small scale and short term” (p.63).

In the village of Hamsa, near the Hamra checkpoint in the Jordan Valley, Abu Riyad, who has been living in Hamsa with his family for thirty years, must now travel long distances to get water for drinking and irrigation, after two huge water wells constructed for nearby settlements have dried up the springs upon which for generations the community of Hamsa has relied. Says Ma’an’s report ‘Draining Away’: “unconnected to the water network, Abu Riyad must now travel to Ein Shibleh for his water. Nor does the family know the quality of the water and if it has been treated. While he is fortunate not to have to pay for this supply, it costs 200 shekels to transport 10 cubic metres of water. As the water covers all of the family’s needs, from drinking, washing and drinking water for the animals, Abu Riyad must transport this amount every four days. With the price of fuel rising, this means that water represents an increasing financial drain for the family…the community receives little support. While several tanks and water coupons have been donated from local and international NGOs, this is only ever for limited amounts of time, and thus provides only temporary relief.”

Indeed, Abu Riyad is fortunate to receive water for free. Ayman Rabi of the Palestinian Hydrology Group laments that, regarding many of his organization’s aid initiatives, “[the recipients of water] are asked to contribute, unfortunately. Although we do not like this, it is something that has been agreed on by the [Palestinian] Water Authority. They have been asked to contribute by 10 shekels, though we are not happy with this arrangement, for each cubic meter. and then we refill them whenever they ask us to.”

Many organizations, instead of delivering water, deliver water tanks to imperiled communities, so that Bedouin may transport water from filling points. However, by delivering water tanks, instead of connecting communities to water networks, these NGOs, though well-intentioned, often compound the problem by forcing the Bedouin to drive long distances, through a myriad of checkpoints, to filling points in Areas A or B, in order to maintain a constant water supply. The World Bank report decries that “occupation checkpoints and curfews severely limit tanker access to communities… there are 36 fixed checkpoints across the West Bank, including the gates of the Separation Barrier, that seriously affect access of water tankers and maintenance teams to communities…. Given the risks faced by drivers for their physical safety coupled with the longer routes, the price of water through tankers has increased exponentially”.

The case of Abu Riyad illustrates how expensive this practice can become for Bedouin faced with no alternative. According to Fathy Khdirat of Jordan Valley Solidarity, “to use water tankers in this way costs the Bedouin 30 shekels per cubic meter of water, while their neighbors in Areas A or B pay on average between ½ and 3 shekels per cubic meter of water.” The perpetuation of this inequality works in the occupation’s favor, by encouraging Bedouin to move out of Area C into Areas A or B.

In addition, mobilizing short-term emergency relief is much more expensive for the NGOs than would be a project to install permanent pipelines linking the Bedouin to water sources. Fathy Khdirat estimates that a recent $700,000 initiative to accomplish the former could have achieved the latter with 10% of the budget. Between the Joint Water Committee, the Israeli Civil Administration and the IOF, however, the possibility of installing permanent water infrastructure for the Bedouin is practically foreclosed from the beginning, so that aid initiatives are forced to work within the restricting, oppressive parameters of Israeli law. Says the World Bank report, “at best, the PA role is reduced to improving water and sanitation services to Palestinian communities within the constraints laid down…stakeholders recognize the inefficiency and high costs of such fragmented and contingency development but see no alternative.”

The bueraucratic matrix of corruption and control, in which both Israeli and Palestinian political and civil organizations are enmeshed, causes on-the-ground human rights abuses in clear violation of The Right To Water, enshrined in General Comment no. 15 of articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva, in November 2002. The document stipulates that “the right to water contains both freedoms and entitlements. The freedoms include the right to maintain access to existing water supplies necessary for the right to water, and the right to be free from interference… by contrast, the entitlements include the right to a system of water supply and management that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the right to water.” The covenant goes on to list specific water entitlements — the right of “physical accessibility: water, and adequate water facilities and services, must be within safe physical reach for all sections of the population. Sufficient, safe and acceptable water must be accessible… within, or in the immediate vicinity, of each household, educational institution and workplace…”; the right of “economic accessibility: water, and water facilities and services, must be affordable for all. The direct and indirect costs and charges associated with securing water must be affordable…”; and the right of “non-discrimination: water and water facilities and services must be accessible to all, including the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, in law and in fact, without discrimination”.

Ma’an’s report, ‘Draining Away’, clarifies that, in regards to the Right to Water enshrined in this document, that “while this right does not entitle people to unlimited use of free water or to household connection, it does mean that water and sanitation services should be affordable, that water and sanitation facilities should be in the immediate vicinity of the household, and that water should be used in a sustainable manner. This right exists irrespective of an individual’s ethnicity, gender, age, religious or political beliefs… it also stipulates that individuals and communities can participate in, and influence, decision making relating to water and sanitation services on national and local levels.”

Here are some quick facts taken from ‘Draining Away’, which should be measured against the UN-enshrined Right to Water-

In October 2009 Amnesty International noted that “180,000-200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water, and even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry.”

According to the WASH monitoring project, the cost of private tankered water in 290 communities in the West Bank has increased between 100-200% for one cubic meter since the start of the intifada.

40% of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley consume less water than the minimum global standard set by the World Health Organization, which is set at 100 liters cubed per day.

56,000 Palestinians in the Jordan Valley consume an average of 37 Million Cubic Meters (MCM) of water per year, as compared to an average of 41 MCM for only 9,400 settlers.

Palestinians are charged more than their counterparts in Israel for water: Mekorot charges Israelis NIS 1.8 per cubic metre, compared to an average of NIS 2.5 per cubic metre for Palestinians.

There is near-universal consensus that there exists in the Jordan Valley a systematic policy of oppression and ethnic cleansing, touching upon not only water but all aspects of life for the 15,000 Bedouin who are unconnected to any water network in the 95% of the Valley designated Area C. Says Deeb Abdelghafar of the Palestinian Water Authority, “the Jordan Valley is a unique area from the Israeli point of view. They are trying to [establish] control over this area, and they are trying to prevent any permanent water infrastructure in order to prevent the people to be there… they don’t want to support the existence of these people, they want to immigrate the people outside of this area.”

Advocates like Fathy Khdirat of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a grassroots movement that works to build infrastructure for the Bedouin of the Valley, are determined to encourage those under occupation to resist the oppression, and remain in their native land. “I spent all my life under the Occupation,” insists Fathy, “and I want to see a better future for my children. I am from there, and I will not shut up.”

Ben Lorber is an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank and a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. His articles have in many venues, as well as his blogs at He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben.