Water Rights for Arab Citizens of Israel
Among the many challenges facing Arab citizens living in Israel, access to water is perhaps the worst. Grassroots International partner the Ahali Center for Community Development is organizing to secure the human right to water in a region that thirsts for justice.
The Sea of Galilee has always been intrinsically tied to the politics of the occupation. Situated more than 200 meters below sea level, the body is the main freshwater source for the Jordan rift valley. The north and eastern shores were a part of Syria until Israel strategically seized the Golan Heights in 1967. Just five years shy of Israel’s takeover of the Golan territory, the government of Israel launched a massive water diversion project that would become central to their ability to “green the deserts” in the south. The diversion of the Sea of Galilee has lowered its water level considerably since the process began in 1962. It has also threatened the water level of the Jordan River. Giant pipelines work their way throughout Israel and the West Bank all the way to the southern Negev/Naqab desert, where Jewish-only communities enjoy these water resources. Aside from the obvious problems caused by decreased access to water in all of northern Israel’s farmlands, the pipeline’s dominating presence in the Batouf valley makes living and working there extremely challenging. The pipeline bisects the entire valley—and unlike anywhere else, there it is an open channel. The standing water damages the environment on several levels. It attracts insects, and is treated by chemicals, which destroy surrounding crops. To make matters worse, it is in Israel’s interest to ensure that Palestinian farmers do not attempt to access the open water before it reaches their southern settlements. The government thus erected thick razor wire fencing on each side of the 110 kilometers-long channels, creating a situation similar to the Wall in the West Bank that divides farmers from their land. For example, in one part of the Batouf, there are just three bridges across a 17-kilometer expanse. Because of these and other Israeli-imposed facts on the ground, Ahali’s data indicates that more than 60% of the landowners have left to look for work elsewhere. The organization reports that more than a quarter of Arab farmland has been confiscated for settlements and water. The fact that this land no longer belongs to the Arab community has impacted their access to food. “The Israelis used to buy agricultural products from us,” one farmer explained. Now much of the community is forced to import them and many youth have left for the cities. Sakhnin and Arabe are two of the extended rural communities that are completely tied to agriculture in the Batouf Valley. They are the focus of Ahali’s Batouf Valley Rehabilitation Project which GRI has supported since we began our partnership in 2007. These two villages share the highest unemployment rate inside Israel (from 23-25%). On the farmlands, Israel often refuses to sell electricity to Palestinian families, because they don’t want people living there. (The longer the land stays vacant, the easier it is for the government to claim it as state land.) The private-public Israeli water company Mekerot follows similar lines, sometimes denying water to Arab farmers. Basel Ghattas, Ahali’s interim director explained the Galilee’s water situation in the words of an old Arab proverb. “It’s like the camel in the desert,” he said. “The camel has water on his back and is dying from thirst but he can never access it.” Ghattas explained that discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel is threefold. First they were stripped of their land, then water resources, and finally their ability to develop their economy. Ahali believes that through community organizing and small-scale agricultural projects, Palestinians have a better chance of staying on their lands in the Galilee. “To protect the small farmer is to protect the indigenous community,” said Sger. “By protecting the land we also protect the family,” he added. Ahali grew out of an environmental vision to support small farmers. —— The Ahali Center for Community Development: Ahali, meaning “people in community,” is an independent organization established in 1999 to strengthen grassroots mobilization among Palestinian citizens of Israel through community organizing, community development, and social and economic empowerment of rural and marginalized groups in their struggle for full citizenship and minority rights. Ahali is a Grassroots International partner.