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West Bank Water Crisis: Palestinians Put Blame On Israel


There's a water crisis in parts of the West Bank this summer. Israeli authorities have reduced the flow to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and some Israelis, too. The water shortage has to do with a hot summer and a political battle between the two sides. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: One day in early June, people in the Palestinian village of Sarta and neighboring villages opened their taps and out came a trickle. Many people haven't had running water for months now. In some places, Israeli authorities have cut the flow by up to two-thirds, says Palestinian water engineer Eyad Yaqob.

EYAD YAQOB: If you go to the home, and you don't have water more than two weeks in your home. You don't have - when you open the tap or you open in the toilet, you'll not find any water. It is miserable.

ESTRIN: And expensive. Yaqob took me to see Awela Musleh, a mother of six who's been buying water at a premium from enterprising Palestinians who truck it in from other areas. She keeps the water in buckets and uses it to shower by hand and flush the toilet and clean her dishes.

AWELA MUSLEH: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: "Look at how dirty my house is. I'm embarrassed," she says. "I focus on drinking, not cleaning."

Israel's water authority controls the water system in the West Bank and says it reduced the flow in some areas for a few reasons. It's been an especially hot summer, and people were using too much. Even in Jewish settlements there have been disruptions. But they're much more severe in Palestinian areas. Israel blames the Palestinians for tapping into pipes and stealing water. And it says Palestinian pipes are leaking. But Palestinians refuse to coordinate with Israel to repair them, as required by the Oslo Peace Accords signed about 20 years ago. Emmanuel Nahshon is the spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

EMMANUEL NAHSHON: We would like very much to have a joint working mechanism in order to deal with those water issues. But the Palestinians have systematically refused to participate in the coordinating mechanism.

ESTRIN: That coordinating mechanism is a joint water committee that both sides must convene to approve any water projects in the West Bank, whether it be for Jewish settlers or Palestinians.

NAHSHON: Unfortunately, we do not have this kind of joint effort that we would like to see.

ESTRIN: Palestinian water engineers say the problem isn't leaky pipes. The U.S. government has laid new water infrastructure for the Palestinians in the area where water's been cut. Something else is going on here, Yaqob says.

YAQOB: The problem - Israelis, they want to pressure the Palestinians, to put the pressure in the Palestinian Water Authority, to tell them come and sit in the table in the joint water committee.

ESTRIN: And that's where you get into politics. Fadi Abdel Ghani of the Palestinian Water Authority says the Palestinians refuse to participate in the committee because the Israeli members will only approve water improvements for Palestinians if the Palestinians approve projects for Jewish settlements. Palestinians oppose Jewish settlements because they're built in occupied territory they want for their own state.

FADI ABDEL GHANI: In the end, no one of us can sign such documents for them. If you want to give me water, I have to approve projects for the settlements? No.

ESTRIN: Palestinian village leaders say they're rotating water between villages to share the little they have. They complain of people going to the main valve at night and redirecting the supply out of turn, and residents have staged sit-ins to protest the shortages. Palestinian water expert Yaqob says Palestinians and Israelis in the area are drawing from the same aquifer, and they need to work together.

YAQOB: The water and environment, you cannot live without us and we cannot live without you. If we don't have any cooperation between us and water - and wastewater and environment, you will face a problem. If not - you not face it now, you will face it in the future.

ESTRIN: Yaqob notes that the 1995 Oslo peace agreement gave Israel control over most of the West Bank's water. But over the years, Israel has increased its own water supply with desalination plants. Yaqob says it's time to renegotiate the old deal, to share more with the Palestinians. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Sarta in the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.