News

Were Palestinians Stopped from Gathering Rainwater as It’s Deemed ‘Israeli Property’?

A post on X cited a 2011 report claiming that "Rainwater is the property of Israel."

Published Nov 24, 2023

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Amidst Israel's continued bombardment of Gaza during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, a number of November 2023 social media posts drew attention to Israeli control over water accessibility for Palestinians in the West Bank.

A Reddit post claimed that according to a 2011 United Nations (U.N.) report, “[A] Palestinian living in the West bank doesn't have the right to collect rainwater or build a well on HIS LAND because rain water is an 'Israeli property'.” An X post claimed, “Rainwater is the property of 'Israel'. Palestinians are forbidden from gathering rainwater” and appeared to quote a U.N. report as well.

We also received questions from readers, asking if Palestinians were indeed forbidden by Israeli authorities from gathering rainwater for “domestic and agricultural needs.”

The above claims were taken from a real report by independent human rights organizations submitted to a U.N. body in 2011, which found that Palestinians in the West Bank were not able to gather rainwater for their needs. Titled, “Israel’s violations of human rights regarding water and sanitation in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories]” the report is considered a non-U.N. document, however. It was written by the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group (EWASH), a coalition of almost 30 organizations working in the water and sanitation sector in the occupied Palestinian territory, and Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization in the West Bank. It was submitted in September 2011 to the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), a body of independent experts in the U.N.

The report referred to a specific Israeli military order in 2009 that stated rainwater was the property of Israel (emphasis ours):

[...] in July 2009, Israeli military forces issued stop-work and/or demolition orders on cisterns being constructed in the village of Tuwani, even though the villagers of Tuwani faced a severe water shortage on account of the drought, increasingly stringent Israeli restrictions on movement necessary to gather tankered water, and attacks on water resources and infrastructure by Israeli settlers. If constructed, these cisterns would have significantly eased the water crisis for the people of Tuwani. However, according to Israeli military orders in effect in the area, rain is the property of the Israeli authorities and thus Palestinians are forbidden from gathering rain water for domestic or agricultural needs. In 2010, Israel approved the construction of a filling point in the village of Tuwani that alleviated the problem of water availability in the village even though the capacity of the filling point was significantly below the capacity requested by humanitarian agencies (less than 1/4th) in order to serve surrounding villages, which are considered as the cluster of communities most at risk of water scarcity in the West Bank.

The findings of the above report echo another finding from a 2017 Amnesty International report titled, “The Occupation of Water.” Per the report, in 1967 Israeli military authorities consolidated complete power over all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories. Military Order 158 required that all Palestinians get a permit from the Israeli military before constructing any new water installation. Since then, any extraction of water and water infrastructure development has had to go through Israel, which has resulted in “devastating” consequences for the Palestinians there, according to Amnesty.

The Amnesty report also stated (emphasis ours):

[The Palestinians] are unable to drill new water wells, install pumps or deepen existing wells, in addition to being denied access to the Jordan River and fresh water springs. Israel even controls the collection of rain water throughout most of the West Bank, and rainwater harvesting cisterns owned by Palestinian communities are often destroyed by the Israeli army. As a result, some 180 Palestinian communities in rural areas in the occupied West Bank have no access to running water, according to [humanitarian agency] OCHA. Even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry.

A 2016 Al Jazeera English report found that Palestinian villages in the West Bank received water supplies for only two hours in a week. While Israel implemented a policy of water cuts each summer, it had reached a higher peak that year. Israeli officials, however, said the authorities provided equal amounts of water in Israel and Palestinian territories.

Deeb Abdelghafour, the Palestinian Water Authority’s (PWA) director of the water resources department, told Al Jazeera, “We have been facing shortages for decades, and the reason is not natural, but man-made – meaning the Israeli occupation and Israeli control over water resources in the Palestinian territories.”

Israeli authorities have long argued that they have fulfilled their obligations under the Oslo accords. Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories told Al Jazeera that it provided 64 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinians annually, even though it is only obliged to provide 30 million under the accords — referring to the landmark 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

A 1995 Interim Agreement under the accords gave Israel continued control over water sources for Palestinian territories, but stipulated that such a status would be in effect for five years, after which the two groups would have final-status negotiations. Those talks never took place, and the agreement remains in effect, even though, as Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem pointed out in a May 2023 report: “the Palestinian population has grown by about 75%, yet the amount of water Israel allows the Palestinians to extract [remains] the same.”

B’Tselem’s report found that in order to make up for the shortage, the Palestinian Authority was forced to buy more water from Israel at several times the cost and could not transport water between regions in the Palestinian territories. The report stated (emphasis ours):

Moreover, clauses addressing the distribution of water completely ignore the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C in other articles of the Interim Agreement. Israel retained all powers in Area C, which covers about 60% of the West Bank, and Palestinians need its consent – given sparingly – for virtually anything: every new drilling, every water grid that connects neighboring Palestinian communities, and every wastewater treatment facility, which inevitably have to be built far from residential neighborhoods, must pass through Area C. This policy has led to sharp differences in daily per capita water consumption among Palestinian communities. While the agreement allows Israel to export water from inside the country to West Bank settlements, it precludes the Palestinian Authority from transporting water from one part of the West Bank to another. This creates an absurd situation, as the Palestinian Water Authority produces water at a negligible cost in the Qalqiliyah, Tulkarm and Jericho Districts but cannot deliver it to other Palestinian communities, sometimes mere miles away, due to Israel’s refusal. The resulting discrepancies in water consumption among the various Palestinian districts are staggering: in 2020, daily per capita water consumption in Bethlehem and Hebron Districts was 51 liters, while in Qalqiliyah District it was almost three times greater – 141 liters.

A 2012 paper by Haim Gvirtzman, a professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University and a member of the Israel Water Authority Council, argued that there was almost no difference between the per capita water consumption of Israelis and Palestinians. Refuting many claims from Palestinian authorities, the paper stated:

[...] while Israel has ensured that nearly all Palestinian villages and towns are connected to running water, the Palestinians have violated their part of the agreement by refusing to build sewage treatment plants (despite available international financing). Moreover, the Palestinians have drilled hundreds of unlicensed wells and set up unauthorized connections to Israeli water supply pipelines.

[...] the Palestinians should be working to pay individually for their water consumption, to prevent leaks in domestic pipelines, to implement conservative irrigation techniques, and to reuse sewage water for irrigation. The fact that they have taken none of these steps and have not adopted any sustainable development practices precludes their demands for additional water from Israel.

According to the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA, since 2021 Israel demolished nearly 160 unauthorized Palestinian reservoirs, sewage networks and wells across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the rate of demolitions were quickening. Local Palestinian villages have seen their farms dry up with farmers leaving for northern towns with more water supplies, or finding jobs in flourishing farms on Israeli settlements.

Israeli settlements along the West Bank — considered illegal under international law — tell a different story. An August 2023 Associated Press report found the settlements to be like “an oasis” where, “Wildflowers burst through the soil. Farmed fish swim in neat rows of ponds. Children splash in community pools.”

Journalist Amira Hass noted in Israeli publication Haaretz in 2014 that the Interim Agreement impacted water access in Gaza, arguing that it forced the region to rely only on the aquifer within its borders. The agreement did not account for population growth, resulting in overpumping from neighboring regions including Israel, leading to seawater and sewage penetrating the aquifer, making more than 90 percent of potable water there undrinkable. A Washington Post report on water supplies during the 2023 war found that there had been no natural surface water in Gaza since the early 2000s. The enclave had to depend on Israel’s National Water Carrier to supplement its groundwater sources, which the PWA purchased. In 2021, however, only 6% of Gaza's water came from Israel.

Since the outbreak of the war in 2023, Israel imposed what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called "catastrophic" cuts to water supplies in Gaza. In late October, Israeli officials reopened a water pipeline into Gaza, arguing there was no shortage of food and water in the besieged territory.

While the Israeli military order controlling the Palestinian collection of rainwater was reported on more than a decade ago, the overall status of Israeli control of Palestinian water supplies continues unabated.

Sources

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Bollack, Eloise. “Palestinian Villages ‘Get Two Hours of Water a Week.’” Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/24/palestinian-villages-get-two-hours-of-water-a-week. Accessed 22 Nov. 2023.

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Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.