The Occupation is real & it is about Water
I have recently returned from a trip in the West Bank, Palestine. I travelled alone, on public transport, and I stayed in Palestinian homes. This is because I am a writer,and I believe that in order to understand things, it is better to find the truth among ordinary people.
I do not believe that an accurate understanding of Palestine can be achieved any other way.
I write this in response to David Saks’ article (published Insight, November 15) condemning the movement to give South Africans the choice to boycott Israeli products.
I write this, as Israel has launched a full-scale military invasion of the Gaza strip, and while the world’s attention shifts to Gaza, people in the West Bank continue to live a life of oppression and fracture.
It’s also important to remember that Israel’s bombing of Gaza is being done from a territory that is occupied illegally, in the first place.
Mr Saks’ argument against products being labelled ‘made in Israel Occupied Territories’ appears to hedge on the notion that the West Bank is not occupied. He says that the term ‘occupied’ is politically loaded and not ‘neutral’ as required by the World Trade Organisation. He says labelling goods as such is an ‘excuse’ to punish Israel.
The dictionary definition of ‘occupied territory’ is ‘a territory under the authority and effective control of a belligerent armed force’. From my experiences in the West Bank and Jerusalem, these areas are occupied and this is an accurate description.
In my personal capacity, I stood in endless lines at checkpoints in cages that resemble cattle grids, waiting hours without end on a urine-soaked floor (the grids are fully covered, so once you are inside, waiting, you can’t get out).
I was interrogated by 17-year-olds with automatic rifles and terrifyingly bored eyes. I was strip searched and questioned for two hours in Tel Aviv airport.
In Bethlehem I saw the Wall.
It is an 8m-high, 800km-long concrete monstrosity topped by barbed wire, watchtowers and floodlights. A powerful symbol and weapon of the occupation, it stretches far into Palestinian land (in some cases 20km into the 1967 Green Line) and it annexes valuable water wells and pipelines for Israeli use.
Indeed, the most pressing issue in relation to the need to accurately label goods as coming from an ‘occupied territory is the issue of water – and who is using it. Between Ramallah and Nablus in the north, I saw Palestinian farmland that was dry and barren. Through a co-ordinated system of rerouting, a discriminatory permit system and destruction by settlers, water is being taken from Palestinians to provide Israeli houses and farmland with the water they need to live a life of profit.
Palestinians call water the most powerful tool of the occupation. The most recent report on water usage in the area, a 2009 World Bank report, found that Israel is taking four times as much water as the Palestinians from a single, vital shared aquifer in the West Bank. While Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water a person each year, Palestinians use only 75 cubic metres, 10 to 15 litres a person each day, below humanitarian disaster levels.
So Palestinians must buy water from the Israeli national water company, Mekorot, which also controls water flow to the West Bank. During the summer months, when water is scarce, the company switches off tap water to Palestinians to preserve supply to the Israelis. So Mekorot takes the water – and thirsty Palestinians must pay them to give it back.
Despite increasing environmental pressure and low rainfall, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in September that Israeli water consumption had increased by 6%. ‘Israel’s awareness of the need to save water seems to have eroded in 2012,’ reads the report. No mention is made of Palestinians.
Information around the disparity of water provision has been met by a similar campaign of ‘information on water issues’, co-ordinated by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA). The ICA is the occupying power which governs the West Bank and administers a complex permit system that makes it difficult for Palestinians to gain access to water from other sources besides the Israeli-mandated water system: from wells, springs or by building rain water cisterns.
A 2009 World Bank report showed that approval rates for Palestinian wells hovered around 30%. Palestinian wells must not reach deeper than 150m, while Israeli wells are allowed to go as far as 600m. It is also astounding to discover that Palestinian approvals are for small pipes of 2 inches in diameter, while Israeli pipes are 8 – 12 inches in diameter. This affects water supply and pressure.
In a report published in March this year, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that Israeli settlers have ‘impaired’ Palestinian access to springs, causing Palestinian farmers to cease working the land, or to purchase at great cost, expensive piped water from Mekorot. As long ago as 2003, an Oxfam report provided more details on the word ‘impair’: settlers dig up and block pipelines to and from the springs, fill springs with concrete, and even throw used baby nappies into the water.
And even though 87% of the springs affected are located on land recognised as Palestinian by the ICA, the OCHA report stated that the ICA does not do anything to stop these seizures. These springs are Palestinian farmers’ ‘single largest water source for irrigation and significant source for water livestock’ – now, the OCHA report states, they are being turned into sight-seeing attractions by a burgeoning tourism industry in the settlements!
In Nablus, I looked out from the balcony of a house over the valley to see rain water cisterns erected on the roofs of Palestinian homes and apartment blocks. These cisterns, especially in the summer, provide crucial water for families. Outside the towns, gathering rain is equally important for farmers. But, thanks to a complex and expensive permit system enforced by the ICA, even collecting water from the sky comes at a cost for Palestinians.
If a Palestinian manages to secure a permit for a cistern from the occupying ICA, he must still fork out around NIS15000 per cistern, which amounts to roughly a year-and-a-half’s wages for the average worker. One cistern irrigates land for about 10 people. Half of these people are often children. News reports this year record that cisterns are being destroyed by bulldozers and soldiers ever week in towns and villages through the West Bank. A 2009 Amnesty report quoted an Israeli soldier saying that rain water cisterns in the West Bank, ‘make good target practice’.
The Water and Sanitation Hygiene Monitoring Project reports that the Wall has ensured that 50 wells and over 200 cisterns have been destroyed or isolated from their owners – this has affected over 122 000 Palestinians. The most recent figures for the agricultural cost of the Wall on Palestinians is from 2003: 2200 tons of olive oil; 50 000 tons of fruit; 100 000 tons of vegetables.
All of this, so that Israel can claim the fruits and industry of the West Bank as its own.
The destruction of water wells, cisterns and the denial of access to springs for the local population during an occupation is prohibited under article 53 of the 1949 Geneva Convention. So this begs the question: surely something more serious than an occupation is going on here? In that case, the word ‘occupied’ might in fact be too lenient a term for goods coming from the West Bank.
In a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this year, the Israeli tourism ministry announced that it was considering building luxury hotels in West Bank settlements. Where will the water for the baths and swimming pools of these hotels come from? More importantly, where are these tourists coming from? And why are they supporting an occupation?
In the same way that foreign tourists need to know the truth about the areas they are visiting and the springs they are photographing,
South Africans have a right to an accurate description of the area from which Israeli goods are coming from.
This is a response, Mr Saks, not to discredit you or to insult you –
but to invite you, on behalf of the people on the ground in Palestine, people I met who are begging us as South Africans of all faiths to help them against a power that is no longer about Abrahamic faith, but about military hegemony and racism – to take a closer look at what is going on there.
In fact, why don’t you just go? Travel incognito, as a South African. I did. I’m 35 years old – and I’m a girl. I said I was looking for clarity, and I found it.
In none of my conversations with Palestinians did one of them advocate what you term ‘the eradication’ of the state of Israel.
The phrase you use is propaganda and it is being bandied about by agents of an increasingly unpopular military power, whose victims are none other than those who seek by almost any means necessary, to end the desperation they are living in.
Naming a truth is not an excuse to punish Israel. It is an opportunity to better our own humanity. As global citizens there is no better act right now than to make the right choice when it comes to goods coming from the occupied West Bank –
for Palestine, for Gaza, for the world.
Our government should be commended for helping us take the first global stand.
Karen Jayes is the author of ‘For the Mercy of Water’, published by PenguinSA.
She also served as senior editor of the UK-based online newspaper, The Middle East Times. her blog is here: http://karen-jayes.blogspot.com/