Sunday, November 1, 2009

Water in the West Bank: Amnesty International's Report

Amnesty International has published a report titled "Troubled Waters--Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water" which paints a picture of despair in the West Bank and Gaza strip and suggests that Israel is almost totally responsible. (Another news story about the report is here and there's a summary of some of its findings here.)

The report is based heavily on interviews with Palestinians living in the West Bank and documents that seem to be generally publicly available, such as World Bank reports and legislation.

Reading the report, one is left with the impression that Israel is deliberately denying water to Palestinians in the hopes that they will simply leave. Indeed it explicitly claims that this is an Israeli policy, but provides little to substantiate this claim. The report shows no indication of actually having attempted to speak to Israeli authorities with regards to the water situation in the West Bank with the exception of a case where a request was made to the Israel Water Authority and no response was received.

What struck me, personally, when reading the report was its use of emotive language and reference to issues which have no real bearing on the amount of water Palestinians have access to. For example, the report speaks of the illegality of Israeli settlements. This may be so, but the legality of settlements is not germane to how much water the settlements consume, nor the amount of water Palestinians should have. If the settlements were legal, the problematic disparity in access to water would be equally shocking.

A further example is that it also emotively criticizes the swimming pools in Israeli settlements contrasting these (undated) images with those of empty Palestinian reservoirs. All the while, AI ignores the reality of Palestinians themselves having swimming pools.

More substantively, however, the report errs, or makes dubious assumptions or arguments about the status of the waters available in the region. For example, the report claims at several points that water is a human right. To be fair, though water should probably be a basic, universal human right, today, under international law, it is not. See this article and read this report from the WHO which can, at best, only extrapolate that water is a human right based on other, adjacent rights.

Secondly, the report makes the questionable legal claim that the underground water source supplying the West bank, The "Mountain Aquifer" is subject to the same legal regime as those that apply to surface waters. This is a legal position that also does not exist in international law since no legal regime exists at all that would properly apply to aquifers like the Mountain Aquifer.

Another criticism of the report, this one leveled by the group NGO Monitor, makes the point that the AI report ignores the regional reality of drought and of the challenges relating to water for many countries in the region. The Israeli government did respond to the report forcefully suggesting it was foreclosed from making any representations to those investigating and that the facts presented by Amnesty International were simply false.

Indeed the Israeli government suggests that they exceed their agreed upon requirements to share water with the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo agreement and that Palestinians mistreat the water they have access to by not recycling sewage for irrigation, by not investing money provided to them for aquatic infrastructure and by refusing Israeli offers to construct desalinization facilities for "political" reasons. The Amnesty report did touch on PA failures, but suggested that the PA only failed because somehow, its hands were always tied by Israel.

The Israeli government also points to this report that it produced in March 2009 explaining how water was distributed in the West Bank.

Whatever the causes, it is clear that there is a regional drought and that is impacting all people in their region and that Palestinians may be suffering from the situation disproportionately to their Israeli and Jordanian neighbours. It may similarly be true that there are endemic problems of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian water tanks out of pure boredom (the report makes this point without discussing the issue with any Israeli officials.) If true, such incidents reflect a breach of discipline and need to be corrected without delay. The suggestion, however, that there is a policy of enforced inequality or a desire to force Palestinians out by depriving them of water is not demonstrated by the AI report and is forcefully refuted by Israeli sources.

Amnesty would have done well to have consulted Israeli officials on this matter before writing their report. As Israel did with Jordan when their peace treaty was signed, water sharing was made a major issue. To date, the water clause of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty functions well and there is close cooperation between the two countries. AI's report instead reads as though the author was looking for any opportunity to criticize Israel and as such will probably be dismissed as biased and ignored by those who may be in a position to help rectify some of the problems it identifies: Israelis.

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