Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Palestinian refugees starved of clean drinking water by Israeli red tape

By Matt Matthews - October 17, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Water] [refugee camps]

Denied access to clean water by the indifference of the Israeli authorities, the residents of Aqabat Jaber refugee camp say their children are suffering permanent health damage.

Mohammed is a camp resident and father, and regularly makes a three-kilometre trek to neighbouring Jericho to fill up gallon jugs of clean drinking water.

“We don’t have swimming pools, and this isn’t Wadi Qelt,” he tells the Palestine Monitor, referring to the lush hiking route which follows a stream through a cleft in the surrounding mountains. “We just need water to clean and to drink.”

The problem is as clear as running water, but muddied by the silt of bureaucracy. With the support of foreign aid from France, major pipes have already been laid through the West Bank’s oldest refugee camp.

All that remains is to connect these to Aqabat Jaber’s own pump and turn on the taps. According to Jamal Awwadat, the head of the camp’s Popular Committee, this work should take no more than a month.

But until the Israelis give permission for the work to go ahead, the pipes will remain dry. “They said you cannot work here, you cannot build anything, you need permits from 13 different committees,” Jamal tells the Palestine Monitor.
The camp’s estimated 10,000 residents have been kept waiting for three years, following an endless succession of delays and excuses Jamal views as deliberate: “the Israelis tie everything to politics.”

Old water channel though Aqabat Jaber are clogged with rubbish

While the Israelis shuffle pieces of paper around, the refugees in the camp are forced to rely on a meager trickle of unsanitary water, provided at a premium by the Israeli company Mekorot. The state-owned company has been accused of operating a system of “water apartheid” by a French parliamentary report, systematically denying Palestinians access to this most basic of natural resources.

“This water [provided by Mekorot]? If you tried to sell it in your country, no-one would buy it,” Jamal says. “If you tried to give it away for free, they wouldn’t take it.”

Though those who can afford an alternative do not drink Mekorot water at all, many children at the camp’s two schools come from families too poor to buy water from Jericho. Even the filthy water intermittently pumped through the camp costs around 3 shekels ($1) per litre, a significant financial burden for many families.

Jamal shows the Palestine Monitor how salt is crusted around pipes carrying Mekorot water through the camp, looking incongruously like icicles in the desert heat. As a result of this heavy saline content, doctors have warned that the camp’s children are suffering permanent damage to their vulnerable kidneys.
Salt crusted on water pipes in Aqabat Jaber

A summer of rampant shortages has seen the
price of water increase up to twelve times in parts of the West Bank, as the Israeli government has refused to negotiate a solution with the Palestinians. In Aqabat Jaber, a 24-hour water cut-out on October 2 was just one crisis among many.
Three-hour water black-outs are a daily occurrence, and water is regularly rationed through the different sections of the camp. Jamal says Aqabat Jaber residents can access only 35 to 50 liters of water a day, a third to a half of the 100 liters recommended as a safe minimum by the World Health Organization.
The aggressive disinterest of the Israeli government is one thing, but the camp’s access to clean water is also being dammed closer to home. Israeli settlers in communities such as nearby Erad Yeriho use an average of 370 litres of water each day. Aerial photos of their fiercely-guarded colonies show swimming pools gleaming sapphire among rich vegetation and rolling lawns.

For the last 16 years, Sami has operated a popular, eponymous hostel in the camp, and his name is on the lips of every taxi-driver touting in Jericho.

His hostel provides employment for camp residents and offers tourists a chance to see the realities of life in Palestine while enjoying famous hospitality in the only budget accommodation in the area. But Israeli inertia is squeezing out the profit from his business, as he is forced to shell out 150 shekels a day for low-quality water.

“We take the water from here,” Sami explains to the Palestine Monitor, jabbing his finger at the top inch of a water-bottle pressed into service as a model well, “but the settlers can take it from here.” So saying, he drags his finger down to the bottom of the bottle.

“If we’re lucky then we get some water,’ he continues, “though it’s dirty and salty. And if the water level goes down, then we go without.”

For decades, the Israeli government has been systematically draining the Jordan River. Enthusiastically sucking up its waters to fund lucrative agricultural projects in the illegal settlements, they have paid scanty regard to the sustainability of these operations, let alone their short-term impact on the lives of Palestinians.

Jamal shows me photographs from the camp’s early days of women bearing baskets of fruit on their head, rich produce grown from the desert soil with the help of canals reaching high into the mountains. But this irrigation system has run dry, and the channels which still run through the camp are clogged with dust and litter.

Even without a degree in hydro-engineering history, the disparity between the pump serving nearby settlers and that serving the camp is clear. The Israeli pump is as thick as a man’s torso, the Palestinian pump a malnourished limb by comparison.

Both are fenced off behind barbed wire, and Jamal cautions us not to step too close to the compound. If we do, the Israelis could pick us up on CCTV, mistake us for saboteurs and retaliate with aggressive or even lethal force.
“They take the water from under our feet, they give it to the settlers for free,” Jamal says. “But they sell it back to us. Our water, that comes from our land.”

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