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Scraping The Bottom of The Cistern


Where will America and the EU succeed more: In their pressure on Yasser Arafat to lead governmental, financial and security reforms, or in their pleas with Israel to guarantee enough water of reasonable quality and price to 200,000 Palestinians?

Another delegation from the UN is in the country to monitor Israeli and Palestinian Authority promises to deal with the severe humanitarian crisis in the territories. The visit follows one in August by UN envoy Catherine Bertini. Her report noted that among other things, Israel promised to guarantee appropriate daily amounts of water to the Palestinians.

Behind her diplomatic language was hidden an intolerable reality well known to the security forces and the international community. There are 281 Palestinian communities that are not connected to water supply lines. According to various estimates, more than 200,000 people in the West Bank – and their herds and flocks – depend on water tankers for their daily supply of water. They must make their way several times a day between their villages to the main water sources, which are usually a nearby well.

In the last two years, because of the policies of closures and curfews, those 200,000 receive much less than the minimum amount required – 50 liters a day – and the water they do get is of a poor quality, unhealthy, and so costly that fewer and fewer are able to pay for it. Oxfam, the British-based international relief organization, devotes an entire chapter in its most recent report to the impact of the closures on Palestinian villages.

The IDF’s blockades around every village and the prohibitions on Palestinians traveling on most of the paved roads to the West Bank have doubled and tripled the distances the tankers have to travel from the water source to the villages, so instead of five to 10 trips a day, they can now only manage two or three.

Instead of seven kilometers, they have to travel as far as 55 – on unpaved roads. Sometimes they encounter mobile IDF and police checkpoints, which delay their trips for hours. Because of the difficulties on the roads, the drivers demand double payment and more for every cubic meter of water they transport.

Unemployed and impoverished, most residents are unable to pay the high prices. The water suppliers are no longer ready to sell on credit. People have sold their source of livelihood – sheep and goats – because they could not afford to keep them watered. In some areas, people have taken to using irrigation water for drinking and cooking. In others, they are scraping the bottoms of the cisterns for polluted water that could cause disease.

Everywhere, people are saving water, using much less than 50 liters a day. In some schools, pupils are told to bring their own water. There’s no need to describe the hygienic conditions in the schools.

More than a month after Bertini’s visit, Oxfam and B’Tselem sent a letter to the defense minister and representatives of the donor countries, detailing cases that prove no real steps were taken by Israel to meet its promises about water. The defense minister’s spokesman promised Ha’aretz that “the defense establishment is working to meet all needs of the broad Palestinian population uninvolved in terror… [and that] in the West Bank, there is a steady supply of water. When there are isolated problems regarding water supply, it is enabled through tankers and with the help of the army and the civil administration.” But there is no connection between those promises and reality.

Last week there was a flurry of activity between the Foreign Ministry, the government coordinator in the territories and representatives from the international community over “easing” conditions for the Palestinians in general, and regarding the water crisis specifically.

There were meetings, phone calls, complaints and new promises. Western sources reported that “Shimon Peres was furious when he heard the promises were not being kept” about the water. Maybe. In any case, it seems the international community knows very well that it is impossible to stand on the sidelines and continue the policies of internal closure and curfews in the West Bank and at the same time guarantee reasonable water supply to people imprisoned in their enclaves. But they don’t have the strength to deal with the contradiction.

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