Water in the Jordan Valley: ‘It’s our life’

By EA Cassie

Our van rattled from side to side as it climbed the rocky road up the dusty hill. At the top of the hill we were met with the scattered remnants of a water tank, which until minutes before was storing 1 million litres of water – almost half the amount of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. 

Remnants of the water tank near Khirbet Yarza after it was destroyed by Israeli forces. EAPPI / EA Cassie

This tank supplied water for Palestinian families, livestock, and farmland in the area. Without this tank, nearly 500 people now lack adequate water for their basic needs and livelihood.

Men from the area sit on the edge of what was the base of the water tank near Khirbet Yarza. The tank supplied water to families, farmers, and grazing fields nearby in the Jordan Valley. EAPPI / EA Cassie

This was just one of several water tanks in the Jordan Valley which the Israeli military demolished in the crucial days ahead of planting season for Palestinian farmers. Three days earlier, a water tank the same size had been destroyed. This tank, near the village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, provided water for 25 families – water they used in the home, to drink, and to nourish almost 100 acres of cucumbers, aubergines, and other crops.

The farmers were forbidden from the area while three power shovels and bulldozers worked – the Israeli military declared it a closed military area for 70 minutes while the tank was demolished. For reasons the farmers in Bardala could not understand, the soldiers also destroyed the beehives next to the water tank.

Rubble of the former water tank in Bardala behind scattered remnants of destroyed beehives . EAPPI / EA Cassie

No coincidence

Communities in the northern Jordan Valley were not surprised at the timing of these demolitions. The coming weeks were to be the start of the planting season. But without water, farmers cannot plant. Without fields to sow and harvest, day labourers are left without an income.

The Palestinian farmers did not know what they would do without their main source of water. Many cannot afford the price of buying and transporting the amount of water they need for their families, let alone for farming their land.

‘It’s not your business; it’s our land’

A few weeks later, we met a man named Mursheid after his family saw 250 of their olive trees uprooted by Israeli forces.

Tire tracks leading to the demolished olive grove on the hills near Tammoun. EAPPI / EA Cassie

The authorities also destroyed four water cisterns that morning. Two of the cisterns held 50-70 cubic metres (50,000-70,000 litres) of water; the two other cisterns were empty, as the family had not yet planted olive trees in that area.

Mursheid and his family have proof of ownership of this land, from the British Mandate government, which began in 1917-18, as well as from the time when Jordan ruled the region from 1948. He asked a soldier why they were on his land, and the soldier replied, ‘it’s not your business; it’s our land.’

The soldiers prevented Mursheid from continuing up the hill. They took his ID and made him wait for an hour under the summer sun. They also confiscated phones and cameras from him and the other community members present, returning them only when the demolition was complete. When Mursheid was allowed to get to his land, he found that not only were the cisterns destroyed, the Israeli authorities had also taken some of the uprooted olive trees and thrown them into the cisterns, ensuring that the cisterns (if the family could afford to rebuild them) would be more difficult to clean and use for storing fresh, clean water.         

Mursheid stands next to a cistern, demolished and filled with dirt and uprooted olive trees from his family’s land. The few dozen olive trees that Mursheid and his family have left can be seen in the background. EAPPI / EA Cassie

‘I planted these trees with my family. These trees have grown up with my children’

‘We’ve been working for 7 years. They destroyed everything in 30 minutes.’ Mursheid estimated that he would lose around 60,000 shekels (around 13,300 GBP) just for the trees and olive oil that would have been produced. ‘But it’s not just the money, what we lost. How much time we’ve spent on this land, working it… I planted these trees with my family. These trees have grown up with my children. And in two weeks we would have been harvesting.’

A pretext for dispossession

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem remarks that the Israeli occupation policies and practices of controlling water and other natural resources are ‘a means of dispossessing and controlling Palestinians in the West Bank.’ 

This is a felt reality for farmers, shepherds, and families in the Jordan Valley. If there is no water, there is no way to feed families, crops, or livestock. Without their water supply, the farmers and labourers in Khirbet Yarza and Bardala went without a harvest – and an income – this season. For Mursheid, he will somehow find a way to transport water tanks up the remote hilltop to keep his remaining 30 olive trees alive.  ‘It’s not a business,’ he said. ‘It’s our life.’

One herder in the northern Jordan Valley declared the stark reality: If they take the water no one will stay. Demolitions, harassment – we can take this; but if they take the water, no one can survive.’

Sheep come back to drink after a morning grazing in the late summer heat. EAPPI / EA Cassie

Control of water in the Jordan Valley

The West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C by the Oslo Accords in 1993-5. The Accords designated 87% of the Jordan Valley as Area C, where Israel has full security and civil control. The Israeli government justify the demolitions, stating that it is illegal for Palestinians to establish homes and resources in Area C, without the consent of the Israeli authorities. Though this consent is rarely given.

Furthermore, Israeli control over Area C, as agreed in the Oslo Accords was intended only to be an interim measure that would last no longer than five years. More than fifteen years later, Israel have not withdrawn and continue to occupy Area C and the wider West Bank.

Under international law, Israel is an occupying power and as such has responsibilities to protect the population in the occupied territory:

Objects essential for the survival of the population should not be attacked, destroyed, removed or rendered useless and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a war crime.’

Diakonia, 2017


Take Action!

Read more about water inequality in occupied Palestine by reading this factsheet by UNOCHA.

Share this blog with your elected representatives and ask them how they intend to address your concerns about Israel’s demolition of Palestinian water resources in Parliament.

You can refer to the table below to remind your elected representatives of Israel’s specific violations of international law and the international community to address these.

International Law

Destroying privately-owned water tanks and depriving people of water and livelihood violates international law in several ways, including:

According to Article 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention, an Occupying Power has the duty to maintain public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.

Article 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction of property owned by individuals, states, or social cooperative organisations.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family.

*Update

On Tuesday, 3 December 2019, at around 7:00 A.M, Israeli authorities arrived in the nearby Palestinian village of Khirbet Einun in the Jordan Valley. Equipped with a digger and a bulldozer, Israeli forces bulldozed two more water cisterns that had been established just two months before. Source: Local EAs, B’TSelem.

The illegal demolition of vital water resources in the Jordan Valley and other rural areas of the West Bank is an ongoing issue, yet one which remains under-reported. Please contact your elected representatives and press them to speak out on this issue with urgency.