Israel’s water war crimes

There is a war going on and it long predates Israel’s summer Gaza onslaught. It is a war on water, and it runs deep. For the last decade, Israel has been carrying out a systemic and willful campaign to deny Palestinians access to clean water.

Though Israel’s campaign to restrict water access has yet to make the news, rights organizations are pushing the Palestinian Authority to take the issue to court, so the matter could well make headlines in the coming months. While the PA has been debating whether or not to accede to the International Criminal Court, increasing documentation of war crimes may push their hand.

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Under international law, deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure is a war crime, and as of 2010, water and sanitation were enshrined as basic human rights. Israel has blatantly and systemically been denying these rights.

Through growing documentation and awareness, Israel’s systemic campaign against Palestinian water can be seen for what it is: a comprehensive violation of one of the most basic human rights. It consists of a two-pronged approach: the visible mass destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure, reinforced by invisible policies of closure and occupation, siege and confiscation that block the repair of infrastructure. Together, these tactics prevent the existence of sustainable Palestinian communities, driving people from their land, their homes, and communities.

The first tool of Israel’s water war has been well documented. It includes direct and extensive damage caused deliberately during large-scale military operations. In the latest Israeli military operation in Gaza this meant Israeli aircraft targeted the sewage pump station and F16s disabled pumps that sent 25,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day to Gaza’s main sewage treatment plant. Further Israeli shelling east of Gaza City hit a main water pipeline, disconnecting areas east of the city so that 450,000 were completely cut off from municipal services, and the more than 1.5 million residents of the strip suffered massively reduced access.

The losses in water infrastructure alone from this latest series of strikes have been estimated at $30 million. This is not taking into account the massive toll on health, with 100,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage flowing through the streets of Gaza and into the sea, causing widespread health problems. This meant over-burdened hospitals, without water themselves, were dealing with digestive ailments, skin allergies, water-borne and respiratory diseases.

UN investigations from the 2008-9 attacks on Gaza already affirmed that Israel’s targeting of water infrastructure was “deliberate and systematic.” The September meeting of the Russell Tribunal, charged with investigating rights violations from this summer’s atrocities, has reached similar conclusions

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also urged the PA to take action on these violations and bring them to the ICC.

And while arguments will no doubt be made about the fog of war or the targeting of water infrastructure as accidental or as collateral damage, this line of defense is weakened when such military attacks are seen as part of a longer-term systemic program. For example, in the 2001-2 invasion of Jenin, the same policy of intentional damage to water equipment during military assault was used. Invasions caused massive damage to water and wastewater infrastructure, cutting off water services to civilians for weeks.

Even more insidious has been the slow but deliberate damage to water infrastructure that has taken place as part of the day-to-day of occupation. This damage can be seen both in the West Bank, as well as in the agricultural lands of Gaza that have, since 2005, been declared as a border ‘buffer’ zone by the Israeli military. 

Official documentation has catalogued demolition by Israeli forces of 173 different pieces of water, sanitation, or hygiene infrastructure in Area C of the West Bank between 2009 and 2011. This has included the confiscation of water tankers, which are used as an emergency measure when access to water is prohibited. In the Gaza border zone – which swallows up some 17 percent of Gaza’s landmass – 305 agricultural wells were destroyed between 2005 and 2013.

In addition, Jewish settlers in the illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank regularly carry out acts of vandalism and destruction that specifically target Palestinian water sources, and frequently take over natural springs for their own recreational use.

These settlers are acting within a clear Israeli policy that sees targeting of water resources as an acceptable method of warfare.

The destruction of generations-old water infrastructure such as historic cisterns or springs not only deprives marginalized communities of water but destroys an important element of Palestinian history and the community’s organic relationship with natural resources.  Further, by depriving farmers of water, Israeli policies drive them off their land. Loss of agricultural income resulting from de-developed water infrastructure is estimated at $1.44 billion annually.

Though Israel has total control over the building, development, or maintenance of water infrastructure in Area C – where permission is systemically denied – it also maintains indirect control in all areas of the West Bank, where it can – and often does - prohibit the building of water treatment, irrigation, or industrial facilities.

Evidence of water warfare, and deliberate efforts to use water as a weapon against Palestinian civilian populations, is being documented at all levels, and efforts continue to bring awareness to all those affected. Israel’s water war has continued with impunity for far too long and must be challenged before its effects are irreversible.

Dajani is a policy member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and a Palestinian environmental researcher and activist based in Jerusalem.

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