To be heard above the din of the water tanker, Migdalim Director Yael Hashash had to raise her voice considerably. “The year is 2017, and we are forced to receive water under these conditions. It’s unbelievable!” she said, throwing her hands up in frustration.
As the summer heat engulfs the country, this settlement northeast of Shiloh in the northern West Bank has been riding out a water crisis for the fourth consecutive year.
The Shiloh pipeline, which provides water to Migdalim as well as to nearby Palestinian villages, was shut off this week by Israel’s Mekorot water authority. But even a week earlier, scant amounts reached the settlement overlooking the Jordan Valley, and a tanker began shuttling water to Migdalim four to five times a day from various Mekorot sources as had been required in recent years.
“I regularly have to alert residents to limit the amount of water they use. Sometimes we have to tell them not to shower,” said Hashash.
The 90 families living in Migdalim depend on her for updates throughout the day on the status of the water supply.
“I am constantly calling Mekorot to confirm that the tanker is coming on time in order to fill our water tower,” she said.
As to who was causing the problem, Hashash did not mince her words: “Arabs from the surrounding villages, such as Kusra, steal the water by drilling dozens of holes into the pipeline to reroute it all for themselves.”
“Because of excuses from the Civil Administration,” the Defense Ministry unit that administers the West Bank, “these thieves are not caught and I am forced to spend my time making sure the kindergarten and daycare here have enough bottles of water because the faucets are empty,” she charged.
Hashash angrily dismissed the notion that such problems are the direct result of a decision to live roughly 40 kilometers east of the Green Line. “I don’t want to talk about politics. This is a human rights issue. Everyone deserves to have enough water,” she said. “We are no different from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or the Bedouins in the Negev, and we deserve the same level of services.”
She sighed and nodded in the direction of the chugging tanker. “You hear this noise? My secretary sitting outside my office has to deal with it right outside her window. She now suffers from chronic headaches.”
It takes 40 minutes for the tanker to fill the water tower, and since it only comes during the daytime, the noise disrupts much of the working day in the director’s office.
“We are supposed to provide services to the residents of this community, but nobody wants to come here because of the noise and pollution from the water truck,” she said.
Hashash referred to the tankers as a “band-aid” solution and said that the only way to solve the problem was “to catch these criminals, which the Civil Administration absolutely has the capacity to do.”
Still, she sought to clarify that she was not blaming entire Palestinian villages, such as neighboring Kusra.
“They are not my enemies. Many of our residents do their shopping there. My repairman is from Kusra,” Hashash pointed out. “They are suffering from this problem as well.”
Different village, same problem
It only took a ten minute walk down Migdalim to the Palestinian village of Kusra for Hashash’s words to fully register. The super market at the entrance was stocked with six packs of one-and-a-half liter water bottles and nearly a dozen residents were waiting in line to purchase.
The grocery’s owner Muhammad said the water had been shut off a few days earlier. But unlike in Migdalim, there was no water tanker shuttling to the village multiple times a day.
Kusra’s Mayor Abed Al-Adeem Wada was adamant that none of his residents was responsible for the water theft. “There is some theft, but only in Jalud,” he said referring to another Palestinian village located between Shiloh and Migdalim. “And that is only because they are not connected to the water grid and are forced to steal in order to have enough to drink.”
Wada laughed off Hashash’s assertion that Palestinian villagers steal the water for their olive tree groves. “Olive trees barely need any water in order to grow,” he pointed out. Wada claimed it was nearby settlers who were illegally drilling holes in the pipeline to reroute extra water for their vineyards.
“About 40 percent of our residents have wells connected to their homes that prevent them from going thirsty during the summer. The rest have to pay contractors out of their own pockets if they want to get any water at all,” he said.
Most of Kusra falls under Area B of the West Bank, meaning it is under the civil jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. For its roughly 7,000 residents to receive water, the PA must purchase from Mekorot, the Israeli national water carrier, through the IDF Civil Administration.
But if Mekorot chooses to shut down the Shiloh water pipeline, as it did last week, the Palestinian residents run out of options. Wada said the PA sends tankers every so often, but not nearly as frequently as in Migdalim. He pointed to the truck filling up the Israeli settlement’s water tower and asked, “Why can’t it stop in Kusra on its way down?”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), whose Civil Administration unit oversees water distribution throughout the West Bank, explained the current situation in a lengthy statement.
“In light of the reoccurring water theft from this line, the water supply was not reaching Migdalim and therefore the water flow was stopped. The water theft epidemic is a serious one that harms the residents of Judea and Samaria, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Since the beginning of 2017, Civil Administration teams have disconnected over 400 pirated water line connections,” it said.
The statement went on to describe plans for a new pipeline that will circumvent Palestinian villages in order to prevent the Israeli-alleged water theft. Concurrently, COGAT said it was promoting the establishment of new water infrastructure for residents of Ramallah and the Shiloh area that will connect them to the broader West Bank system.
“We would like to emphasize that the activity of the Joint Water Committee (JWC) that was set in the interim agreement has recently been renewed, following about five years in which the Palestinian side refused to promote projects to improve the water infrastructure in the area.”
COGAT said the PA was ultimately responsible for tending to the water needs of its residents, including those in Kusra. “Currently, Israel is providing 64 million cubes [per year], about 33 million cubes above the agreed amount in the interim agreement,” it said.
The blame game
Amit Gilutz, of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, noted that according to the 1995 Oslo agreement that established the JWC, “80% of water extracted from joint Israeli-Palestinian sources was allotted for Israeli use, while the remaining 20% went to Palestinians.” Even though the allocation to the Palestinians has increased, he said, it is still considerably less than what the Israelis receive, he said.
“While most of the settlements enjoy a full supply of water, Palestinians only get a fixed quota and they are required to pay more for it,” Gilutz claimed. “In the Jordan Valley, for example, there are 10,000 settlers. Yet they receive the same amount of water that a third of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the entire West Bank receive.”
Mekorot spokesman Uri Schor said the JWC has been meeting and making progress on the water issue. However, he insisted that Palestinian water theft lies at the root of the shortages, and not the broader system of water administration in the West Bank.
“In Israel, thieves are deterred from stealing because they know they will get caught, but in the West Bank, no such fear exists,” Schor said.
He dismissed the accusation that Israeli settlers have been stealing water for their vineyards. “Complete nonsense. It’s not in their mentality to do so,” he said. “The problem is on the Palestinian side.
Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan went further. “The Palestinian Authority is encouraging its citizens to damage infrastructure because it creates anarchy that Israeli authorities then have to pay for,” he charged. “These Palestinians think to themselves, ‘Why pay for water when I can just steal instead?'”
Dagan said there was no short-term solution for the residents of Migdalim, apart from the tankers, but noted that his regional council is in contact with government officials in order to address the needs of all Samaria residents.
The current reliance on tankers, he said, was “embarrassing.”
Seat at the table
At her office in Migdalim, Hashash expressed frustration that she’s not directly involved in efforts to solve the problem.
“There is currently a meeting with the deputy defense minister to discuss this issue, and I wasn’t even invited. I had to hear that it was taking place from others,” she complained.
While a representative from the regional council, who Hashash praised, was present at the meeting, this wasn’t enough. “When you hear about the water crisis from people who are actually suffering from it, as opposed to people above the problem, you better understand the daily struggle,” she said.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan said later he recognized Hashash’s frustration, but insisted that the Migdalim residents were well represented. “With all due respect, only direct decision-makers participated in the meeting. Nonetheless, Migdalim residents have a direct line to my office,” he assured.
Ben Dahan said he was trying to expedite a solution, including through better coordination between the Civil Administration and Mekorot. He also referenced the planned new pipeline bypassing Palestinian villages and predicted it to be ready for Migdalim residents by next summer.
“In the meantime, though, the Palestinians can steal air if they like,” he mocked.
Back in Kusra, though, Wada was looking for water, not air. “The [village] employee responsible for administering water payments has not even showed up to work this week,” he said, pointing to an empty desk. “There’s nothing for him to do.”
“This is a human rights issue. Everyone deserves water,” the mayor said dejectedly, unwittingly using the same words as his Israeli counterpart up the hill at nearby Migdalim.