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On the water front

By Amira Hass, Ha'aretz, Wednesday, June 21, 2000

This summer, like every summer, Palestinians are cutting back on water consumption - unlike us Israelis, who use more water for drinking and bathing than in winter. Many Palestinians get running water for a day or two, once every week or two.As it did last summer and the one before that, the Knesset will again discuss the Palestinians' water situation. The discussion is scheduled for today, having been added to the agenda after an emergency request made on Sunday by MK Issam Makhoul (Hadash). In all likelihood, Makhoul will today hear something similar to a comment by United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush during last year's discussion: "Why does this issue have to be discussed here? After all, there is a Palestinian Authority that should be dealing with this matter." His comment reflects widespread ignorance among the Israeli public about the issue.

Which makes it necessary to remind people: Since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel controls all the water sources between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This control means, in effect, the exclusive right to open the water sources, determine the quantities consumed, and to distribute water according to sector and nationality. The establishment of the PA did not change this fact: Israel continues to control all water resources on which Palestinians depend. But according to the Oslo agreement, the Palestinians received responsibility for managing a large portion of the water system, as well as permission from Israel to slightly increase the quantity of water by drilling several new wells in the eastern aquifer only.

Like every summer, Palestinian officials and Israeli officers in the Civil Administration and officials of the Water Commission or Mekorot, are trading accusations and conflicting data. This time Ramallah has entered into this tiresome dispute: The Palestinians have said the Civil Administration is deliberately delaying its approval for the laying of a water pipe from a newly drilled well. The Civil Administration has responded that the delay stems from the Palestinians: For several months it has been waiting for them to sign the protocol for laying the line. Protocol? Abd al Kareem Asad, the Palestinian responsible for the Ramallah district water authority, heard about it for the first time this week. Up until last week, he says, other reasons were being cited to explain the delay.

The water authority Asad runs provides water to 210,000 people in approximately 50 communities, of which 70 percent is purchased from Mekorot. The quantity was determined in the talks on the interim agreement. According to the Palestinians, all over the West Bank, every summer, Mekorot supplies a lower amount than it is supposed to. The Palestinians pay per month for this water, so the lower monthly bill makes them aware that they are getting less water.

According to a senior official of the Palestinian Water Authority, the drop this year is around the 30 percent mark, depending on the area. The Civil Administration says that is an exaggeration, but confirms that in the Ramallah area there was an error and in recent weeks a smaller quantity than stipulated was supplied. The Civil Administration also charged that the Palestinians steal water: They dig, in Jenin as well as in Ramallah, illegal wells which have already lowered the water level. The Palestinian Water Authority confirms that this happens in the Jenin area, and that with the help of the Palestinian security apparatuses, most, if not all, of the wells have been sealed. They further explain that these are not deep wells, the water is intended for irrigation only and that it is in the Palestinians' interest to fight against these practices. The Palestinians were unaware of illegal wells in Ramallah.

The Civil Administration adds that in any case, cuts in the quantity Israel sells the Palestinians are inevitable. After all, it is inconceivable that water quantities should be cut in Israel when they can easily be cut in the West Bank instead. Long live equality.

The truth is that the above disputes are only the latest chapter in a water saga that has been ongoing since 1967: Despite the additional water allotments mandated by the Oslo agreements, the distribution of water resources remains the same and it is clearly based on the principle of inequality. B'tselem's figures show that 79 percent of the water from the mountain aquifer system - Israel and the Palestinians' clearly common water system - is allocated to Israeli citizens and 21 percent to Palestinians. This system supplies most of the water of West Bank Palestinians and only a third or so of the water consumed by Israel. The Palestinians in Gaza must make do with (and not draw in excess of) the portion of the coastal aquifer marked off by the artificial borders determined in 1948 (plus a small supplement from Israel). In Gaza, they stopped drinking tap water long ago.

The Israeli principle of water distribution here is that every Palestinian must make do with around one third to one quarter of the amount that an Israeli uses. Enforcing a water conservation program in Israel means that people will not wash their cars and give up green lawns at the entrance to their homes. An additional water cut for the Palestinians means that tens or hundreds of thousands more will not drink enough water, use the bathroom less, not shower for a week or more, do laundry once every two weeks and risk infection and illness.

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