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Israel blames West Bank water shortages on Palestinian theft and political inaction

July 5, 2016 6:38 P.M. (Updated: July 6, 2016 10:59 A.M.)
Water pipes in the Jordan Valley (Photo: Al-Haq)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- At a committee meeting in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, Israel’s national water company Mekorot told attendees that the occupied West Bank’s ongoing water crisis was predominantly due to Palestinian theft, while committee members also blamed the Palestinian government for refusing to coordinate on development of infrastructure.

Mekorot presented data to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Subcommittee for Civil Affairs and Security in Judea and Samaria -- an Israeli term for the West Bank -- claiming that out of the 9,000 cubic meter daily water shortage, 5,000 cubic meters were “stolen” through illegal connections to West Bank water infrastructure.

While water shortages in the region are not out of the ordinary, particularly in the summer months, districts across the West Bank have reported a worse than average water crisis over recent weeks, after Mekorot cut water supplies mid-June.

Mekorot said that it had imposed a broad reduction to each West Bank community by 15 percent, claiming the move affected both Palestinians and Israelis residing in illegal settlements equally.

However, Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq estimated in a 2013 report that up to 50 percent of Palestinian water supplies were diverted by Mekorot over the summer months to meet the consumption needs of Israel’s illegal settlements.

The head of the Civil Affairs subcommittee, MK Mordhay Yogev, said at the meeting that “the authorities have ‘dried up’ the residents of Judea and Samaria -- Jews and Arabs alike.”

“The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Water Authority have known for many years what needs to be done, but it has yet to be done,” he said, adding that a master plan was in urgent need of implementation.

COGAT, for its part, has also placed the blame on Palestinians for the shortages. In a recent Facebook post, the agency, which is part of Israel’s Defense Ministry, wrote: “Who actually prevents the access of running water? Palestinian residents themselves!”

Israeli Water Authority Director Alex Kushnir said at the meeting: ”We must fight the thefts aggressively, as they are a major cause of the current crisis.”

Kushnir also put the Palestinian Authority (PA) at fault for refusing to convene the Joint Water Committee (JWC), established more than two decades ago on a Palestinian-Israeli consensus system, which however enables Israel to veto any proposal by Palestinians to maintain existing water infrastructure or build new projects.

As a result of Israel consistently using its veto power to limit development of Palestinian infrastructure while throwing unconditional support behind development in settlements, the PA has boycotted the JWC for years.

Just half of Palestinian proposals for wells and improvement projects to the water network were approved by Israel between 1995 and 2008, compared to a 100 percent approval rate for Israeli projects, according to Al-Haq.

On Sunday, Akram Taqatqa, the mayor of the village of Beit Fajjar in the southern occupied West Bank, told Ma’an that his town’s water network had not had any maintenance work done in at least 15 years and was in very poor condition, further worsening the water crisis in the Bethlehem district town.

Taqatqa added that Beit Fajjar, which relies on Mekorot for its access to water, was only receiving “very small” amounts of water which did not cover residents’ daily needs.

Infrastructure in Palestinian cities and towns are usually built and maintained by municipalities and local councils. However, most municipalities and local government institutions suffer from serious budget deficits.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah pledged on June 26 to find a resolution to the ongoing water shortages, although it remained unclear what steps were being taken to fix the issue.

Hamdallah's office called the Israeli move to cut water access “inhumane and outrageous" earlier in June, particularly while Palestinian Muslims observing the holy month of Ramadan fast throughout the hot summer days.

“Israel wants to prevent Palestinians from leading a dignified life and uses its control over our water resources to this end; while illegal Israeli settlements enjoy uninterrupted water service,” Hamdallah said at the time. “Palestinians are forced to spend great sums of money to buy water (from Mekorot) that is theirs in the first place.”

Israelis, including settlers, have access to 300 liters of water per day, according to water rights NGO coalition EWASH, while the West Bank average is around 70 liters, well below the World Health Organization's recommended minimum of 100 liters per day for basic sanitation, hygiene and drinking.

According to Amnesty International, nearly 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank do not have access to running water.
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