Water in Palestine: Segregated Sea Access and Running Water in the Israeli Apartheid


Léopold Lambert – Barcelona on May 10, 2018
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This article was originally written in French for the second issue of Aman Iwan L’eau fait la pirogue (2018). When translated into English for a design/art magazine that should remain nameless, it was censored and “put on hold.” Consequently, I am publishing it here.

To observe that water is a luxury inaccessible to many has become a cliché of the humanitarian discourse. What this narrative tends to leave asides are the political systems determining the unequal conditions in access to water, whether it is capitalism and its privatizations, or colonialism and its ethnic segregation of this access. Similarly, the so-called “international community” can, at times, recognize the illegally of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (cf. Resolution 2234 voted by the UN Security Council in December 2016) but does not seem to consider the totality of the territorial, social, administrative, judiciary, policing, and resource-management apparatuses that constitute the Israeli apartheid in Palestine – the term “Palestine” designates here the historical region that now includes Israel, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.

Map by Léopold Lambert for Aman Iwan (2017). (click here for a larger version)

Before even evoking water as a resource necessary to human survival, we can address the access to the three seas of Palestine (the Mediterranean Sea, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee) as fundamentally restrained through the various apparatuses that restrict Palestinian movements:
– All Israeli citizens – this includes the 1.8 million of Palestinians – have a total access to the coasts of these three seas, to the exception of the coast along the Gaza Strip since the 2005 Israeli disengagement. They even have full access to the East coast of the Sea of Galilee since the invasion and subsequent occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.
– The 260,000 Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, as well as the 140,000 Palestinians of the West Bank owning a working permit allowing them to cross the checkpoints of the Apartheid Wall also virtually benefit from such a full access to the coast, without being authorized to live there.
– The 2.3 million of Palestinians living in West Bank without a permit – it includes 750,000 refugees – have no access to the seas. Despite the fact that 30% of the Dead Sea is situated in the West Bank (50% in Jordan and 20% in Israel), its coasts are controlled by the occupation army and the Israeli settlements. Crossing the border to Jordan give them a virtual access to the sea, but the long hours of wait and humiliation at the border checkpoint of Allenby Bridge operated by Israel make such practice particularly unlikely.
– The 1.85 million of Palestinians living in Gaza (65% of whom are refugees) have only access to the Mediterranean coast situated within the Strip, and fisher boats are prevented to go any further than nine nautical miles (16.7 kilometers) offshore by the Israeli Navy.

Water Supply In West Bank And Gaza February 2014 2water Photoblog
Getting water at the Khan Yunis Water Authority’s wastewater treatment plant in Gaza. / Photo by Muhammad Sabah, B’Tselem (2014).

– The 3.1 million of Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon do not have access to any part of Palestine since their (or their parents or grandparents) violent expulsion by Zionist paramilitary groups in 1948.

Such a non-exhaustive breakdown illustrates well how the Israeli apartheid does not solely divide the peoples of Palestine in two: Israelis and Palestinians, but also how within these two categories, it implements layers of hierarchization depending on essentialized bodies’ location or social/political statuses.

The access to running and domestic water is also particularly symptomatic of the way the apartheid is inscribed in the daily lives of everyone in Palestine. In November 2016, the World Bank published an alarming report on the situation of drinkable water in Gaza, insisting on the fact that only 3 to 10% of Palestinians living there have access to such water. The always-growing density of this small 365-square-kilometer territory, the Israeli blockade in collaboration with Egypt since 2007, as well as the massive bombardments and invasions of 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 have transformed the Gaza water infrastructure into a very fragile and decrepit. The aquifer itself is contaminated and Palestinians have to get their drinking water from small private desalination infrastructure, creating an additional layer of social inequality.

Palestinian Water Tanks Destroyed By Settlers In Hebron
Palestinian water tanks destroyed by settlers in Hebron. / Photo by ISM Palestine (2009).

The 320 million of cube meters that the West Bank aquifers contain are, on the other hand, exploitable, but since the 1967 invasion and the military occupation that followed, they are managed by Israel. 80% of this water are put aside for Israelis (including the 400,000 settlers who live in the West Bank) despite the fact that they also benefit from the coastal aquifers, as well as others situated in Israel. This is how the Palestinians of the West Bank, despite benefiting for 90% of them to running water, have to restraint themselves to 70 liters of water per day, which contrasts with the 300 liters Israelis use per day, as well as the 100 liters per day that the World Health Organization recommends. Each year, dozens of wells dug by Palestinians are demolish by the Israeli army and their owners are judged in military courts.

Although we, architects, describe more often the architectural embodiment of the Israeli apartheid, water provides us with a particularly potent illustration. It involves as much the massive territorial dispossessions that Palestinian experience since 1948, the spatial and administrative control of occupied territories, and other more discreet and domestic aspects of a colonized daily life. Far from the episodic spectacular violence through which we tend to describe Palestine, the discreet violence that control, police, affect, and restrain each aspect of life, including the most fundamental necessities that water embodies, is perhaps a much more acute description of life as experienced by Palestinians every day.