Weaponized Infrastructures

Weaponized Infrastructures


The Water Crisis in Palestine

Water scarcity in Palestine has long been dismissed as an unfortunate circumstance of the regional geography, but this view reflects Orientalist perceptions of the Middle East as a harsh desert wasteland, a site of inevitable hardship. In fact, the city of Ramallah in the West Bank receives more rainfall than London, and the Jordan River and Mountain Aquifer should provide plentiful water access.1 What is lacking then is not the raw material, but rather, adequate infrastructure. The technological solutions that have thus far been proposed by the Israeli state, international governing bodies, and various international charity-industrial organizations only reinforce the hegemonic discourse that approaches Palestinian water infrastructure as apolitical challenge.2

In reality, water infrastructure cannot be divorced from its social, political, and cultural underpinnings, and framing the water crisis in Palestine as an issue of access avoids the question of what impeded access in the first place.

With the 1967 Israeli military occupation of the remaining Palestinian territory came the complete colonization of water resources supplying the areas of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. This control became ratified through the Oslo II Interim Agreement (1995) or Oslo Accords, which ultimately granted Israel access to over 71 percent of aquifer water, but only 17 percent to Palestine. Despite being intended to last only five years, the actual terms of the agreement are ongoing today, more than fifty years later.3

The Oslo Accords established a Joint Water Committee (JWC), which would theoretically ensure coordinated management of water resources. Despite the fact that the JWC technically has an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, this pretense of equality ignores the power disparity between occupier and occupied.4 Moreover, because any decisions made in the Committee are consensus-based, Israel has de facto veto power under the JWC. This effectively forces Palestine to rely on permits granted by the Israeli state in order to construct water infrastructure projects.5 The JWC permit system has enabled Israel to control Palestinian water access by freezing Palestinian water infrastructure development while simultaneously legitimizing Israeli development in illegal settlements. Through the Joint Water Committee permit regime, infrastructure is violently and tactically deployed by the Israeli state in order to marginalize and displace Palestinian people.

As well, under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank became divided into three administrative zones, Area A, B, C, in which the Palestinian Authority (PA) has varying levels of autonomy. Importantly, these zone distinctions are defined by the spheres of control by either the PA or the Israeli occupying forces rather than being discrete geographic distinctions. In Area C on the West Bank, which is the largest of the zones and holds all the Israeli settlements, Israel has full civil and security control. But while Palestinians predominantly live in Area A and B, the majority of infrastructure that serves them resides in or passes by Area C.  Thus, Palestinian infrastructure projects require an additional permit by the Israeli Civil Administration, which is extremely difficult to attain: fewer than 2 percent of applications between 2010 and 2014 were approved.6 Additionally, in 2016 Israel began retroactively demolishing water and sanitation infrastructure under the guise that they lacked Israeli permits.7 As the lack of water and basic services becomes intolerable, residents have little choice but to leave and relocate. This sinister program of coercing “voluntary” displacement allows Israel to colonize greater territory.

With access to the Jordan River cut off and other natural sources heavily limited by Oslo Accords allocations, Palestinians are forced to turn to alternative sources for water. Some communities use water stored in cisterns, and others must purchase trucked or bottled water from the Israeli water company Mekorot. These water sources are labor intensive, expensive, and above all else, extremely limited. While Israelis have access to an average of 240 to 300 liters of water a day, Palestinians can only access about 73 liters—well below the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 100 liters. It is especially disturbing that in Area C, consumption can drop to a mere 20 liters a day, despite some families being forced to spend up to one fifth of their income on trucked water.8 Unfortunately, the extreme lack of access for agriculture, industry, and municipal use directly contributes to poverty, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, and inadequate health care.

The limited access to potable water has means that Palestinians must resort to onerous methods in order to fulfill their families’ needs. In the Ayn Arik village near Ramallah, one natural spring is shared with several surrounding villages. The labor of collecting water is taken on by women and children, who must carry it for several miles on their heads, backs, or on small carts. The region suffers from high rates of early-onset arthritis in women.9

According to Wright State University professor Anna Bellisari, long-term dehydration “can predispose a population to weakness, lethargy, neurological symptoms, and mild kidney dysfunction or even kidney failure.”10 Additionally, water pollution poses serious health hazards, and young, old, or sick are especially vulnerable. Drinking water in the Gaza Strip contains toxic levels of fluoride, salt, pesticides, nitrates, heavy metals, fuels, sewage, and disease-inducing microbes.11 These contaminants have devastating effects on both human health and agricultural production.

Obtaining water contamination data was an embattled and still incomplete process— in the ’90s, efforts by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Services to test water were heavily restricted by Israeli authoritarian rule through curfews, forced closures of the Birzeit University laboratory, and the withholding of scientific equipment sent by the United Nations. As a result, the full extent of the health effects are still not known.12

The water crisis is further exacerbated for inhabitants of refugee camps. In the city of Jenin, where more than a third of the population is refugees, the Israeli national water company Mekorot has cut water supply by one half.13 This deliberate action compounds the already elevated risk of sanitation-related illness and economic disenfranchisement in refugee populations. The drawn-out occupation has led to a decades-long refugee crisis, outstripping the resources that camps were designed to temporarily provide. The ongoing occupation has resulted in vertical expansion of the Dheisheh camp, and the newer, upper regions of the camp are disproportionately cut off from the national water allocation. To survive, residents must purchase additional water from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA or PA), which is infeasible for lower-income families in the camps.14

The short supply of water and high levels of contamination are a major source of infectious disease in Palestine’s most affected communities. Viral hepatitis, giardiasis, cholera, and ringworm are just a few examples of waterborne illnesses that contribute to health effects ranging from diarrhea and fevers (already extremely dangerous, given the lack of facilities), to blindness and liver failure.15 Compounded with the food shortages which are also caused by highly restricted water access, the insidious malnutrition-infection cycle is a leading cause of death in children.16

Palestine’s water crisis has caught the attention of humanitarian groups worldwide, but these groups overlook the political nature of the problem.  Internationally funded, technologically oriented solutions often focus on alleviating “scarcity” through desalination and wastewater treatment projects.17 In other cases, NGO groups attempt to alleviate the crisis by teaching “sanitary” or “hygienic” practices to refugees and other impoverished residents. This approach simply individualizes the blame for the health effects of the water crisis, chalking it up to personal “bad habits.” The knowledge of “sanitary practices” proves to be useless in the absence of meaningful sanitary facilities.

Occupied Palestinian citizens, who are experts in their own needs and narratives, are at the forefront of resistance against the water policies of the Israeli regime. However, even internal resistance contains hierarchies and takes on many forms. Based on her observations during her 6-month ethnographic research in the Dhesieh refugee camp, anthropologist Anita De Donato argues that this “unequal access to water and other resources,” even within refugee camps and impoverished areas, “implies different experiences of deprivation, thus preventing the cohesion around resistance and solidarity practices.”18 For example, demonstrations have been held in Dheisheh camp protesting the infrastructural violence of water scarcity, but they often do not elicit widespread participation due to unequal legal consequences that poor residents may suffer in comparison to the activists who have strong personal connections with the PNA.

Instead, the poor families that live in the northern region of Dheisheh camp resort to more clandestine forms of resistance, focused on addressing their immediate material needs in the face of institutional denial. For example, they have used rubber pipes to illegally divert water provided to a private stone-cutting company by the PNA to supply their houses instead. 19 By doing so, these families resist dependency not only on the Israeli occupying regime but also on the administration of the PNA for permission to an adequate water supply. Furthermore, by refusing to pay, these families engage with the politics of access on both the literal and symbolic level: They reaffirm and reclaim their status and rights as refugees, resisting the PNA’s coerced hydraulic citizenship—the incorporation of individuals into civil society via their use of municipal services—in the absence of their right to return home.20

The intra-Palestinian politics of resistance within the refugee camps reflect how the hegemonic Israeli discourses around water continues to shape bureaucratic hierarchies, such that even Palestinian government institutions perpetuate the power dynamics of their oppressors. Reforms in Dheisheh undertaken by the PNA or international donors often sideline or altogether ignore the historical role of Israeli expansion and occupation as the cause of the water crisis. The Palestinian water crisis is not an unfortunate natural deficit—it is a deliberate program designed to deprive people of a vital resource.

Therefore, truly advocating for water justice in Palestine requires challenging the structural power behind the crisis. LifeSource is one campaign initiated by Palestinian civilians that uses the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) model to challenge Israeli control of water. Through nonviolent but politically meaningful interventions, LifeSource is reaching toward their vision where Palestinian people and the global community are aware of issues of water rights and are engaged in emancipating Palestinian people from Israeli water apartheid. They call for the boycott of Israeli water bottling companies and agricultural products, as well as other companies and products that profit from Israel’s colonization of Palestinian water resources through their ties to Mekorot. Divestment urges community organizations and nonprofits, such as universities, to withdraw their investments from Israeli companies and from other international companies that contribute to the violation of Palestinian human rights. Sanctions campaigns urge governments and international bodies to place trade barriers on Israel and exclude them from diplomatic institutions such as the UN. Thus, the BDS model simultaneously leverages three models of power: individual action, the private sector, and government bodies to condemn Israel’s monopolization of water resources as a means to enact violence on Palestinian people.

What the LifeSource example points to is that we need to understand the structural causes of the Palestinian water crisis in order to formulate transformative solutions in the interest of justice. As the fight for water rights in Palestine shows, water is not an apolitical resource but fundamentally tied to the systems directing its distribution and supply. Ultimately, the pursuit of water justice cannot be separated from the infrastructural violences perpetrated by the Israeli regime.

  1. Camilla Corradin, “Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians,”  Al Jazeera, June 23, 2016.
  2. Muna Dajani, “The ‘Apolitical’ Approach To Palestine’s Water Crisis,” Al-Shabaka, July 30, 2017.
  3. Corradin, “Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians.
  4. Troubled Waters – Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water,” Amnesty International, 2009.
  5. Corradin, “Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians.
  6. Dajani, “The ‘Apolitical’ Approach To Palestine’s Water Crisis.”
  7. Corradin, “Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians.
  8. Corradin, “Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians.
  9. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Journal of Palestinian Studies, Vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter, 1994): 52-63.
  10. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
  11. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
  12. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
  13. Peter Yeung, “Ramadan 2016: Israel ‘Cuts Off Water Supply To West Bank’ during Muslim Holy Month,” The Independent, June 15, 2016.
  14. Anita De Donato, “Water Politics within the Palestinian Nation-State Building.” Journal Des Anthropologues, no. 132–133 (2013): 169–195. doi: 10.4000/jda.4947.
  15. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
  16. Anna Bellisari, “Public Health and the Water Crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
  17. Dajani, “The ‘Apolitical’ Approach To Palestine’s Water Crisis.”
  18. De Donato, “Water Politics within the Palestinian Nation-State Building.”
  19. De Donato, “Water Politics within the Palestinian Nation-State Building.”
  20. De Donato, “Water Politics within the Palestinian Nation-State Building.”
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