“This summer, we are lucky if we get water in my home once in twenty days,” reported Ramzy, a nearby villager from Jifna, as he filled his grimy four-gallon tanks from a tap near the open road. We were standing at a spring just a few miles north of Ramallah, a city with an annual rainfall greater than London but which, like the rest of Palestine, suffers from a condition of artificial water scarcity at the hands of Israel. “There is a great lake of water beneath us,” Ramzy pointed out (referring to the bountiful Mountain Aquifer), “but we do not see any of its benefits. If we try to dig a well, we will be fined, and maybe worse.” Like the others lined up with their containers, he was relying on the largesse of a man who had found a spring while digging the foundations for a new house and decided to make the water available to the public. I would later learn from the regional water service provider that the spring’s water was not all that safe to drink from: it had been contaminated by the cesspits in the surrounding villages. But for Ramzy and his needy family, there were few alternatives. Water from the private tanker trucks that are ubiquitous on the West Bank’s streets and roads comes at a steep price, and its quality is often not much better.
This summer, Palestine’s ongoing water crisis reached dangerous new heights. Next to the surge in settler activity, anxiety about the lack of domestic water supply was the most common topic on people’s lips. And for many strapped households like Ramzy’s, the safety of what they could obtain to drink was often not a priority. Among the factors contributing to the particularly acute shortage were the unprecedented summer heat, Israel’s cruel reduction, by 25 percent, of supply to the governorates of Hebron and Bethlehem, resource pressure from the post–COVID-19 influx of summer residents from the Palestinian diaspora, and the seizure of artisan springs by settlers all across the West Bank.
While Palestinians have gone thirsty, Israelis had more than enough water to go around. The daily supply to Israelis and Jewish settlers is three to five times greater than to the average Palestinian household, whose consumption is almost 30 percent below the minimum amount recommended by the World Health Organization. Since they are all connected to Israel’s water network, the settlements have access to unlimited and highly subsidized resources; they can always fill their swimming pools and irrigate their vineyards, even during the region’s scorching summers.
Under the 1995 Oslo Accords, Israel is entitled to siphon off a full 80 percent of the West Bank’s groundwater and 100 percent of the surface water from the Jordan River Basin. The limited allocation of 15 percent to the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not accommodated the massive growth in population in the Occupied Territories, which today is home to 75 percent more residents than at the time of the Accords’ signing. Mekorot, the Israeli water company, controls almost all of the distribution, and its monopoly ensures that water does not flow anywhere without its say-so. Not unpredictably, this stark power to turn on and off the tap is being used to accelerate the rate of Jewish settlement: without steady access to water in their villages, rural Palestinians are being pushed off their land and into the overbuilt and overcrowded cities.
Awareness of this stark inequality is hardly a new development. Indeed, commentators have talked about “water apartheid” for some time now. The term appears often in the reports of human rights groups and even in the mainstream media. Some liberal Israeli critics have adopted the language. B’Tselem, Israel’s premier information center on rights violations, notes that the water crisis “is an intentional outcome of Israel’s deliberately discriminatory policy, which views water as another means for controlling the Palestinian population.”
But while apartheid talk has generated much-needed attention to Israel’s injustices, it is also, in many ways, insufficient. In the public mind, “apartheid” suggests the maintenance of repressive rule through a racial hierarchy upheld by Israeli law. Yet the occupation’s daily business of displacement, ethnic cleansing, and land grabbing proceeds at a pace and on a scale that far exceeds this. Emboldened by the new far-right government, settlers are now on a tear. Aided and abetted by the Netanyahu administration’s soldiers and administrators, they are snatching up territory all across the West Bank without regard for the already flimsy laws meant to prevent them from doing so. In many locations, the map has been changing almost from week to week. Weaponization of the water supply has become a frontline tactic of the reinvigorated settler movement.
The most visible markers of Palestinian buildings are the multiple thousand-liter water tanks that litter their roofs. These ubiquitous plastic containers get filled every time running water is delivered. In most urban neighborhoods, delivery comes once or twice a week—three times if you are really lucky, or if you live (as I was told) near important PA officials. Some cities, though, especially in the water-poor south, are less fortunate. This summer, parts of Hebron saw municipal deliveries come just once a month. Once the roof tanks are full, they are supposed to cover the rest of the week’s, or month’s, needs. But many larger households run out, and have to buy at inflated prices from trucked water or from the supermarket shelves.
Who decides how much individual Palestinian households get? The bulk supply available to the PA from Mekorot is divvied up among dozens of regional providers, who in turn allocate it to villages or neighborhoods in towns and urban areas. Distributions are supposed to be determined by estimates of need, but in practice, it depends too on how far one lives from the pumping source and at what elevation. In that regard, cities and large towns tend to get the best service, especially those in the central and northern West Bank, where the mountain aquifers lie. Rural areas get less piped water, and so many villagers rely—as they traditionally have—on the water springs that once formed the life-giving heart of every community.
These springs—around three hundred in number—used to be managed communally, both for household and agricultural use, and some still are. But for more than a decade now, settlers have been seizing the springs for their own use, or for recreational tourism exclusive to Israelis. In places where this groundwater is still accessible, outlier settlements have dug deeper wells to supply their own residents, diminishing the surface flow available to Palestinians to a trickle. In some of these locations which I visited this summer (along with a Palestinian colleague), armed settler belligerence meant that even the act of approaching the springs could be risky. Drastic state action has closed off others. In late July, soldiers were filmed filling a village spring with concrete. Blocking spring access—in addition to shooting holes in residents’ water tanks and cisterns—is one of the means that Israel is using to force residents out of Masafer Yatta, a collection of villages in a vast semi-desert area to the south of Hebron. Israeli authorities have designated these lands as a military firing zone, and are demolishing homes and seizing vehicles on the roads. But cutting off water access is a new low. It is a measure that targets the very existence of its victims, and one that could finally drive residents out and into the urbanized areas where they can no longer graze sheep and goats.
This summer also saw settlers force the Bedouin community out of Ein Samia, a valley located fifteen kilometers northeast of Ramallah, near the town of Kafr Malik. This was an especially significant development since Ein Samia’s wells, dug by the Jordanians in the 1960s, are the only water supply for the central West Bank that is pumped independently of Mekorot. Now they are in danger of being taken over. When we visited the site, I felt like Jake Gittes investigating the water theft in Chinatown: the valley was eerily quiet, with no evidence that anyone was protecting the precious wells behind a fence. As we later learned, there were a couple of unarmed security personnel inside the compound, but they presented little in the way of resistance to would-be intruders; indeed, a water authority official told me that settlers had recently climbed inside and camped there, no doubt scoping out the facility for future occupation.
Water abundance has ensured habitation in the valley for seven thousand years. The land is strewn with the remnants of ancient cisterns and aqueducts; valuable archeological artifacts have been found in caves and tombs. Until recently, the place was home to a cluster of over fifty families, most of whom had moved west from Ras al-Tin in the 1960s. Yussuf, a community member who agreed to meet us, described how the harassment from settlers had escalated. “At first,” he explained, “they allowed their sheep to roam onto our land, and began to steal our own sheep and burn our animals’ fodder. Then they sent their kids to cause trouble. Our own youth got arrested for resisting by the soldiers and locked up, for which they received heavy fines.” He acknowledged that “the combination of arrests and fines proved to be the decisive tactic in the end.” We spoke to him after their school was demolished by soldiers—“the PA did nothing to help us,” he said—and his community was forced to move further up the valley into the township where their livelihoods as shepherds were much harder to sustain. With their departure, there is now nothing to stop settlers from taking control of the wells and diverting the water. A water authority official whom I interviewed conceded that what was unthinkable until recently—the complete loss of Palestinian access to the wells—could come to pass in the near future. Dozens of villages north of Ramallah would be severely impacted.
The logic is clear enough. Like Masafer Yatta, this is an area with vast stretches of land and minimal population: exactly the kind of territory earmarked for Jewish settlement. The seizure of the Ein Samia wells could be a tipping point for the effective loss of the entire region to Zionist habitation. Further down the valley (Wadi Auja), on the way to Jericho, we visited the equally powerful spring of Ein al-‘Auja. Aside from serving as a recreational destination, it used to supply water for an area west of the Jordan River that is traditionally known as the “food basket” for the Palestinian people. In recent years, wells have been dug to divert water for nearby settlements, and last year, Israel authorities confiscated 22,000 dunums of land (5400 acres) surrounding the spring in a clear statement of intent. With the diminished flow, agriculture is no longer so viable; formerly irrigated land is either sold to settlements or expropriated by the Israeli state because it has not been farmed. Ein Al-‘Auja itself sits in the middle of the almost 150 square kilometers of land between Ramallah and Jericho that has effectively been ethnically cleansed as part of a likely takeover. The remaining residents are mostly Bedouin communities with a history of being expelled from other areas.
On the other side of the central mountain ridge, where rainfall drains to the west of Ramallah and Nablus, village communities have a much longer history of residence, but almost every one we visited had a story about water insecurity and settler encroachment. Many ancient water springs that had originally attracted human settlement had been taken over. Others were no longer considered potable sources. In the Ein Qinya valley, once a supply of drinking water for Ramallah, raw sewage now flowed down the hill from the city’s new northern suburbs. The treatment facility, we were told, was overwhelmed. At first, I thought of Gaza, where the bombing of sewage plants by Israeli warplanes in 2021 had further compromised the chronically poor water quality. But the fouling of this beautiful valley water source also reflects a pattern of class domination within Palestinian society itself, illustrated here by the disregard of the newly affluent hilltop people for the peasantry below. While all Palestinians endure the water shortages imposed on them by the Israeli government, they do not suffer equally.
Again and again, we heard on our visits that the next major conflict will be the “war over water.” It’s not easy to envisage what form this war will take, but, during a visit to Hebron in August, we learned that even the conservatively minded leaders of the city’s traditional family clans were readying to protest in the streets against the water reductions ordered by Mekorot.
In some ways, that state-owned water company is playing a role similar to the how the Histadrut, Israel’s national federation of trade unions, operated in the early twentieth century. Never simply an advocate for labor (former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir described it as “a great colonizing agency”), the Histadrut used its heft and donor funding to “conquer the labor market” on behalf of Jewish workers. Mekorot is presiding over an even more existential conquest. Control of water, after all, could not be more central to land acquisition and population transfer. That is why, for Israel, holding a monopoly over the water supply was such a key part of the Oslo Accords. In the fateful agreement regarding the West Bank’s water resources, Israel committed to “sharing” only 15 percent of the supply, a quota that has not budged over the decades. But Israel has never delivered the agreed share and, even though the PA is willing to pay to receive more, Mekorot will not renegotiate. Profit takes a back seat to the project of expropriation that lies at the heart of Zionist policy.
In liberal circles, the growing acceptance of the apartheid label is a welcome, though belated, acknowledgment of the harsh reality of Jewish supremacy in Palestine. But merely acknowledging the fact that Israeli rule is a reprehensible, multi-tiered regime (with different laws, rights, and protections for Jewish Israeli citizens, Israeli Palestinians, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and West Bank Palestinians) will do little to dismantle the grinding machinery of the occupation or turn back the relentless advance of settlement—let alone pave a way for Palestinian self-determination. Nor does the term capture the omnipresent trauma generated by loss of Palestinian land and life. For obvious reasons, there is a reluctance to speak of Israeli policy as genocidal—even though “Death to the Arabs” has become a common slogan within the increasingly empowered settler movement. But we need to find a more adequate language to describe what is unfolding on the ground: one that does not shrink from calling out the pitiless violence of settler colonialism.
Viewing the occupation through the lens of water weaponization might help us do that. With its hand on the faucet, Israel is actively dehydrating strategic portions of the Palestinian population. Water deprivation is already a military asset in the “battle for Area C,” the portion of land administered by Israel which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank’s land but houses only 5 percent of its population. The strategy is to parch these residents and push them into either Area A or Area B, where they will be within the domain of the increasingly repressive PA and the crony capitalists it enables. From Jenin in the north to Yatta in the south (and, of course, in Gaza City, the most water-stressed of all), the same methods of water austerity are now being applied to the ghettoized urban centers ringed by ever-encroaching Israeli settlements.
Cutting off water supply to the enemy is an ancient military tactic. Is its application to civilian populations, then, anything less than a form of war? In any event, it should be recognized as a crime against humanity—as one more addition to the long list of Israel’s violations of international law. Right now, documentation and exposure of this barbaric practice is needed to halt its use. Reversing its consequences will require much more.