It’s often difficult to get people excited about mundane issues like water rights. But actually it’s precisely through the denial of access to water (and other resources) that Israel and other colonial settler states force native peoples off their land. It’s such policies that lie at the heart of ethnic cleansing programmes.
So this piece by Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, on a new ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court deserves attention.
In 2006 the court ruled that the 500 villagers of Umm El-Hiran in the Negev, who had been denied water by the state, were entitled to “minimum access” to this basic service. The government responded by putting up a water tank eight miles away, from which they can buy water from the Water Authority.
Israel justified its punishment of the villagers on the grounds that it wants them off the land and needs to “incentivise” them to leave. The villagers have been there since the 1950s, when they were forced off their ancestral lands by military order. Now Israel wants them to end their traditional agricultural way of life and move into a “township”. The vacated land will then be used to create a Jewish settlement (which of course will have full access to water).
The villagers and Adalah appealed the decision to station the water tank so far from the village. The culmination of a lengthy legal battle is the court’s new decision. It has ruled that the villagers, as citizens of Israel, have a right to water but not an equal right with other citizens.
Zaher makes a very important point that in reaching its decision the court has officially imported the occupation into Israel. Palestinians inside Israel have often claimed that they are effectively under occupation, dealing with an ethnocratic state that treats them as if they were the enemy. The court ruling has made this explicit. Zaher:
Providing an exception for direct connection to drinking water based on ‘special humanitarian considerations’ moves the discourse of Bedouin rights from a constitutional and human rights issue into the framework of humanitarian rights. Humanitarian legal frameworks are applied in situations of occupation, such as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In effect, Israel’s occupation mentality is being legally applied inside the Green Line, and places Bedouin citizens under the authority of an occupying power.
That is even clearer when one takes into account a video by Adalah revealing that Israel has set up a small community of settlers next to Umm El-Hiran waiting to take the land over as soon as the Bedouin villagers are forced off by the state. That settlement, of course, even though it’s been built in violation of the regional building plan, is already connected to all services, including water.