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Israeli policies that deny Palestinian civilians in the West Bank access to clean water, causing serious economic hardship, may be inconsistent with Israeli obligations under international law. Since the Six Days War of 1967, which was fought over the disputed borders of the United Nations’ 1948 partition, Israel has controlled the West Bank. Some call this acquisition an illegal occupation; others call it a legitimate land exchange during an armed conflict. Although many scholars have written generally about Israeli control of the Palestinian territories, one of the most pressing human rights issues is lack of access to clean water for Arabs in the Palestinian Territories. Within the last two decades, the living conditions of Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have been severely compromised due to continued conflict over water rights.

The Israel government’s policies undermine the Geneva Conventions and customary international law, both of which prohibit the use of collective punishment against protected persons. Article 33 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention related to the civilian population provides that “[n]o protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed,” and “reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.” The deprivation of water is causing serious problems within the Palestinian community, such as harming the agricultural sector and limiting the supply of clean drinking water within Palestinian communities. An Israeli policy to limit access to water to punish civilians for the actions of Palestinian militants or to cripple the Palestinian community in order to weaken militants would be considered collective punishment and therefore a war crime. The collective punishment doctrine is meant to protect civilians from unfair persecution and harm during times of conflict and if the Israeli government continues its policy of denying water to Palestinians, it could face international sanctions for breaking the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Both the United Nations (UN) and private NGOs have warned that the water crisis in the West Bank is a major detriment to economic and social development in the region as well as to any peace negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli authorities. The lack of water access has  reduced the productivity of Palestinian farmers and has forced some of them to stop farming completely. The Israeli government’s policy of limiting Palestinian water access is also contrary to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees all people the right to an adequate standard of living and health.  Palestinians have been barred from water sources that a decade prior were used for irrigation and domestic water use. Limited access to fresh water springs in the area has cost Palestinian civilians their livelihoods as farmers, and economic repercussions have reverberated outwards as Palestinians have faced increasingly higher prices for water supplied by the Israeli government.

According to the UN, the Israeli policy of placing Jewish settlers in the West Bank has likely increased tensions over water rights in the area. On average, Israeli settlers in the West Bank pay $0.40 USD for a cubic meter of water for domestic use and $0.16 USD for a cm of water for agricultural use; whereas, Palestinians in the same area must pay $1.20 USD for both agricultural and domestic water use. The Israeli government has monopolized fresh water use in the region to the detriment of Palestinian civilians. As of March 2012, Israel has claimed eighty-six percent of the water coming from the trans-boundary mountain aquifer, one of the biggest water sources in the region.

Limited access to water in the West Bank and Gaza impacts the peace process because if Palestinians are deprived of the basic right to water, this will fuel more discord with Israel. Deprivation of water is already a major source of contention between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. March 2012 UN report states that access to seventy percent of fresh water springs in the West Bank have been denied to Palestinians by threats and violence from both Israeli settlers and the Israeli government. Israeli settler violence toward Palestinians over water use continues to fuel anger between the two groups. The Israeli government’s policy of subsidizing water for Jewish settlers and imposing higher rates on Palestinians remains a matter of contention and hinders the social and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza. According to a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council, inadequate access to water is a contributory factor in the disparate living standards between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West bank. The water crisis in the West Bank will continue to cause tension between the Israeli government and the Palestinian populace, and remain an obstacle to peace, until it can be resolved.

  • Chiara Vitiello

    In limiting Palestinians’ access to water, the Israeli government is disregarding the basic principles of equality and non-discrimination, violating all the major human rights conventions. Israel should reconsider its discriminatory policies if it wants to lay the foundations for a peaceful future.