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Struggle for water continues in Palestine’s Jordan Valley

Israel seems to be trying to drive Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley by denying them access to water.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Jordan Valley was once considered the breadbasket of Palestine given its rich water resources, fertile soil and climate conditions. Yet today Palestinian farmers struggle to breed sheep and care for their livestock and crops with the little water they get from the Israeli authorities.

Ezzat Rashaida, a 32-year-old farmer from the village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, has to buy three drinking water tanks daily for 150 shekels ($43) for his flock of 300 sheep due to the lack of water allocated by Israel to the village. 

“As farmers, we are facing great pressure from Israel, as it controls the amount of water allocated to us, which is not enough for the population. This poses a serious threat to our presence in the area and to our sources of livelihood whether in agriculture or livestock,” Rashaida told Al-Monitor. 

The village of Bardala, with a population of 3,000, is an example of Israel’s control of the Palestinian water resources. The Palestinian Water Authority says that while Bardala is located on a large water reservoir, the northeastern water basin, Israel controls more than 85% of its water. 

Israel intensifies its incursions, raids and inspections of water pipelines and tanks in the Jordan Valley, particularly in the summer.

On Aug. 29, the Israeli army stormed Bardala and bulldozed the pipelines. On Aug. 18, the army destroyed a 1,000-cubic meter (35,500 cubic foot) galvanized sheet iron water tank in the Qaoun plain near Bardala used for agricultural purposes. The plain is in the Israeli-administered Area C of the occupied West Bank.

On Aug. 7, the Israeli army also destroyed a water pipeline and seized an internal irrigation network in the town of Ain Baida, near Bardala. 

Derar Madarseh, a village council member in Bardala, told Al-Monitor the villagers were able to dig a 67-meter (220-foot) deep water well in 1965. 

The well used to provide 240 cubic meters per hour, which was sufficient for the village’s population, which did not exceed 300 people. Madarseh said that when Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, it dug a 320-meter deep water well and another one after four years with 270 meters in depth, which caused the village’s well to dry up. 

Madarseh added that in 1974, the Israeli Civil Administration offered village inhabitants, in exchange for giving up on their wells, 240 cubic meters per hour in water allocations. The inhabitants had to accept the offer since the Israeli authorities had already prevented them from digging any new wells, and what water flow there was had drastically decreased because of the Israeli wells using up the water.

“Israel stuck to this deal until the beginning of the 1980s," Madarseh. He said the water allocations dropped as low as 140 cubic meters per hour for the 16 hours pumps operated daily. 

He added, “Israel pumps water from the two water wells in Bardala it controls. The wells hold about 2,500 cubic meters per hour. The Israeli authorities allocate about 500 cubic meters an hour to the Jordan Valley towns — Bardala, Kerdala and Ain Baida, which have a total population of about 6,000 people. This is in addition to more than 20,000 to 30,000 head of livestock and 10,000 acres of agricultural lands. Israeli settlers, however, get 2,000 cubic meters an hour.”

The Jordan Valley residents often engage in tit-for-tat tactics with the Israeli authorities over water. The farmers, given Israel’s refusal to increase their share of water, find themselves forced to tap into the Israeli water network dedicated to the settlers in order to meet their daily water needs. The Israeli forces, on the other hand, carry out inspections of the pipelines and destroy any extra pipes set up by Palestinians. 

Since the occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli authorities have refused to grant Palestinians permits to drill water wells. Meanwhile, the Israeli Mekorot company handles water distribution in the West Bank and digs wells to supply Israeli settlements with water. 

“The water allocations we get from the Israeli authorities are not enough to survive in the Jordan Valley. Counting only on this water share means two-thirds of farmers cannot live nor work,” Madarseh said.

“Israel controls our water and refuses to increase the water allocations we get. This is why we take matters into our own hands. This is the only way to survive and secure water for agricultural lands and cattle,” a farmer who taps into the Israeli water pipelines told Al-Monitor without mentioning his name for fear of reprisal by Israel.

Ibrahim Sawafteh, the head of the Bardala Livestock Development Association, told Al-Monitor, “Water is the lifeblood of the Jordan Valley. Without enough water, life becomes impossible for farmers, especially from April to November each year, given the high temperatures.”

He added that the water allocations by Israel do not cover 25% of the population’s needs. 

“The struggle for water is a battle of life or death. Palestinian farmers … take water from the Israeli Mekorot company as they live in thirst and Israel is stealing their water,” the source added. 

He said he believes Israel is tightening the noose around the population in the Jordan Valley to drive Palestinians out of their own lands. 

Palestinians will face significant challenges in the coming months as they will no longer be able to easily tap into Israeli pipelines. “Mekorot is working on moving the pipeline that passes near Bardala to a new location a kilometer [0.6 mile] away,” Sawafteh said. 

He said this would mean the beginning of a dangerous phase for farmers, stressing the need for the “Palestinian Authority and international organizations to intervene to help us have access to water. Lack of water means the departure of residents from their lands.”

The Jordan Valley is of paramount importance to Israel, which seeks to have a strong grip on the area. During a trip he organized to the Jordan Valley for US national security adviser John Bolton on June 23, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “In any future peace agreement, our position is that Israel must maintain its presence here for the security of Israel and for the security of all.” Netanyahu also promised Sept. 10 that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if he wins next week’s general elections.

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