Demolition of water wells in the west bank - Al Nasariya

Last Tuesday (July 12th) the Yanoun team weremeeting with the local families in the community. We sat under the tree infront of Yassers house and discussed the problems of living with the settlers,as relayed in my previous blog. Fauzi, the schoolteacher for the communitysprimary school (a school was built in Upper Yanoun after repeated attacks onthe children by settlers as they walked to school in Lower Yanoun) was givingus a tour when I received a text message from the Demolition Working Groupalerting us to the demolition of water wells in Al Nasariya.

Arriving in Al Nasariya we drove down a rough dirt road tofind a group of local men standing about the remains of one of the three waterwells demolished. Work on the three wells, which had been there for 12 years, had been completed only four daysbefore. A primary well, drilled at 120m, was built around seven years ago byMahdi Najeset on his land. The recent project, supported by PECDAR,  pumpedwater from this well to nearby farmland owned by Mahdi and other communitiesand on to the second and third wells that were also demolished. Because ofregular water shortages in the summer, people in this parched landscape mustbuy water at a cost of 100NIS per tank, using up to ten such tanks in a day toensure land is properly irrigated. The improvements meant that farmers would get the water at a quarter of the price.

The crowd of local men gathered around the remains of one ofthe wells tell us that the army vehicles arrived at 9am that morning includingbulldozers. The army drove over the overland pipes snapping them, water pumpswere ripped out and confiscated along with a gasoline tank (for the  generator) and several pipes. If the farmerswant to get these materials back they must pay significant fines. The menestimated their loss in terms of materials used to build these wells at 150,000NIS, the losses in terms of the upwards of 2000dunams of land that will notreceive water is far greater.

At the crux of this matter is the Kafkaesque system ofpermits that permeates life for Palestinians in the West Bank. The Israeligoverned permit system requires that a permit is applied for in the case ofconstruction of any buildings (meaning not only homes but also animalstructures and storage houses) and infrastructure such as wells and piping.While similar permissions to construct new buildings etc. are often requiredelsewhere worldwide, the difference here is that the system is weighed heavilyagainst the Palestinian people who rarely if ever are actually given thepermission they seek. The result of this is that people build anyway withoutthe permits and then sooner or later the army demolish what they haveconstructed, be this homes, animal shelters, or, as in this case, a water pipingsystem to irrigate farmland. From the outside looking in, building a structurethat you know has a very high chance of being torn down (if not immediatelythen at some later date) may seem foolhardy in the extreme. But the only otheroption for people is to accept the permits system as it stands and not buildthe homes, animal shelters and infrastructure that they need to live. Thereader must ask themselves What would you do? If you were forced to buy thewater needed for drinking and irrigating land when you know the water is thereto be pumped from underneath your land? If your family was growing and marryingand having children but was forced to remain in cramped conditions rather thanbuild an extra room or a new house? If your animals needed shelter from the freezingwinter conditions or the intense summer heat? If the road to your home wascrumbling and broken?

At Al Nasiriya we asked Mahdi what he would do he repliedwhat can I do? If he does not rebuild the well his crops will die from lackof irrigation and he must return to paying for tanks of water, if he does buildthe army will return and destroy the pipes. Whichever way he turns in this mazeof regulations, permits and desperate need he faces a wall that cuts him offfrom the most basic of rights, rights which Israel as the occupying power areobliged to protect under International Humanitarian Law.

In the first place Under international human rights andhumanitarian law, the occupied people have the right to their own naturalresources. Under IHL, water, as a natural resource, is protected and should bepreserved.   Furthermore, privateproperty must be respected and not confiscated. (Article 27 Geneva ConventionIV, quoted in Diakonia p.48) The permit system has allowed Israel a method bywhich, Palestinian civilians are corralled into an impossible situation of  having to choose to risk building new waterwells, pump systems, etc. to ensure their access to this resource, knowing thatIsrael can then sidestep this responsibility by claiming that they are onlydemolishing that which is illegally built, as the permit system in itself isnot illegal.

 However, IHL statesthat objects essential for the survival of the population should not beattacked, destroyed, removed or rendered uselessand extensive destructionand appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carriedout unlawfully and wantonly amounts to war crimes (Diakonia, p.48 referring toArticle 54 of 1977 Additional Protocol to Geneva Convention and Article 147 ofthe Geneva Convention). Thus, the permit system provides a vital first stepthat leads to the contravention of the conventions mentioned above, which, ofcourse, Israel has also signed up to.

The farmers who gathered to watch their hydrology systembeing destroyed demanded of the soldiers what they were supposed to do now. Theadvice given to them was that they should use the water running in concretetrough piping through the land. This water is waste water coming from Nablus.It is grey and full of waste and clearly not suitable for consumption orirrigation. As Mahdi pointed out to us, even if he dared to use this pollutedwater to irrigate his land the Ministry for Health would order him to stop.Before we left the director of the Palestinian Water Authority Dr. ShaddadAttili arrived. He faced an angry audience in the farmers who demanded to knowwhat the PA was doing to allow this to happen. When I asked him what he wasgoing to do he answered with the same question that Mahdi had put to us, whatam I supposed to do?. He had been ordered by the Israeli authorities to havethe wells demolished and had refused. Angrily, he said that instead ofcooperation on water matters (this is Area B), Israel was only interested indestruction and that he did not believe there was anyone he could go to with acomplaint that would listen. In follow-up communication with Attilis director ofinternational Coordination, Yousef Awayes, I was told that it had beenorganised with the PAs leader, Dr. Fayad, that emergency piping would be laidto connect the farmers to water in the short-term (I have not received any clarificationsince about this). However, as he has pointed out, how long before the Israeli armydemolish this piping is anyones guess.

Reference: Diakonia IHL Programme, "Within Range", see www.diakonia.se/ihl

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