Thirsting for Justice

Academics have long discussed whether, in times of man-made climate change, with industrial irrigation and power generation schemes and trans-boundary rivers dammed, future wars would be fought over water rather than oil. Certainly water is the basic commodity by which we all survive and withholding it from any community could be a death sentence.

On the 4th of this month, Parliament debated a motion, in the name of my friend and colleague Claudia Beamish, Labour Member for the South of Scotland, titled ‘Thirsting for Justice’, about water and sanitation in Palestine.

In November 2012, during the ceasefire after the ‘Pillar of Defence’ assault by the Israeli forces, Claudia and I were part of a European parliamentary delegation to Gaza. The fact-finding visit was organised by the Council for European Palestinian Relations who work hard to highlight and resolve issues in Palestine.

A few things stand out from that visit, the resilience of a charming, well-educated population and their stoicism in the face of horrendous oppression by their callous neighbour, Israel.

The choice of water justice for Palestine as subject for this debate was, as Claudia said, ‘a symbol and proxy for all the other injustices that make Palestinians’ lives pretty impossible’.  The debate was also timely, as Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, had a short time previous raised water issues in the Israeli Parliament.

With one notable exception I shall come to later, the debate enjoyed great cross-party support.  MSPs quoted from the UN and Amnesty and cited the simple facts of water and sanitation succinctly laid out in the motion; ‘Parliament understands that the average daily consumption of water of Palestinian people to cover domestic and public service needs is around 70 litres per person; believes that this is well below the 100 litre limit recommended by the World Health Organization; understands that Israeli policies and practices limit access to water for people in Palestine to less than they are entitled to under international law; believes that only 31% of West Bank residents have access to the sewage network and that there is only one waste water treatment plant operating in the area; considers that there are significant barriers to access to water for agricultural use; condemns what it sees as Israel’s refusal to grant the necessary permits or military security clearance for the construction and operation of sanitation and waste water treatment facilities; understands that the situation is far worse in the Gaza Strip where, it believes, over 30 kilometres of waterworks and 11 wells operated by the water authorities were damaged or destroyed by the Israeli military during its mission, Operation Cast Lead; understands that the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which is known as the Goldstone report, deemed that the Israeli actions were ‘deliberate and systematic’; applauds the Thirsting for Justice Campaign, which, it understands, works directly with communities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and notes the campaign’s aim to encourage European citizens, including those in the south of Scotland, to demand that governments put pressure on Israel to comply with international law and for human rights to be respected in Palestine.’

Of course there is little new in this issue.  Amnesty International’s 2009 report ‘Troubled Waters: Palestinians denied fair access to water’ made clear how Israel restricts the import of equipment that relates to water supplies. That Report stating many families in the occupied Palestinian territories ‘have to spend as much as a quarter … of their income on water’ and we know that is for water of questionable quality and from dubious sources. Meantime the 450,000 Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank, in violation of international law, use as much water as or more water than the Palestinian population of 2.3 million.

During the debate, I commend the Friends of the Earth report ‘Environmental Nakba: Environmental injustice and violations of the Israeli occupation of Palestine’ which talks, first of all, about the world’s apparent indifference to the plight of the Palestinian people, particularly those in Gaza, then goes on to say, ‘Even more ignored has been the wholesale grabbing of fertile land and water resources and the environmental pollution and destruction due to industrial and nuclear waste dumping.’

Sadly, for a brief 4 minutes of a very consensual debate we heard the utterings of the Israeli media machine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words came from a Tory, John Lamont.  Mr Lamont, a past guest of the Israeli regime, told an angry chamber that ‘In the occupied Palestinian territories there are complex issues with water resources that are in part due to the challenging natural environment, but are also due to mismanagement of water resources.’

A 2013 UN Report stated ‘90 per cent of water in the underlying coastal aquifer beneath the Gaza Strip is unfit for human consumption as a result of pollution caused by raw sewage and rising seawater infiltration,’. It highlighted Israel ‘extracts a disproportionate share of the water from the coastal aquifer’ and prevents access to ‘water from the Wadi Gaza, a natural stream that originates in the Hebron Mountains’. Gaza’s water situation is further exasperated by the on-going blockade and military action which undermines any chance of rebuilding and the Report states, ‘Israel has destroyed at least 306 wells in the Access Restricted Areas of Gaza since 2005. In this context, the Special Rapporteur strongly condemns the targeting of water and sanitation facilities during Israeli military operations, which cannot be justified as a military necessity, and cannot be explained as a consequence of accidents.’

Mr Lamont, who declined to accept any interventions from myself or others, could not have been clearer, or indeed more ignorant, when he said ‘I suggest that the real issue is Palestinian mismanagement.’

I highlight that depressing Tory view to show that, notwithstanding the wealth of impartial reporting and analysis, the Israeli propaganda machine is highly effective and generally enjoys an easy ride from the Western media.

When Claudia and I returned from Gaza we made a commitment to regularly do something practical for Palestine. At this time we are in active dialogue with the Minister for External Affairs and International Development, Humza Yousaf, trade unions, Scottish Water and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East about support for possible partnership water projects and would hope to be able to report some positive news shortly.

Dialogue not guns will resolve the situation in the Palestine but it will all count for nothing if the citizens have to live with insufficient water and no sewage system. It’s time for the West to act.  Israel must be made to respect international law and humanitarian norms and ensure clean water and adequate sewage for the region. Until then Palestine will continue to thirst for justice.