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West Bank refugees stage protests over Ramadan water cuts

Residents of Palestinian refugee camps in West Bank take to streets to protest extended water outages
UN Resolution 194, establishing refugees' right of return, is painted on wall in Dheisha refugee camp (Sheren Khalel/MEE)

BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank - Water tanks in Dheisha refugee camp sit empty atop poorly constructed buildings, while residents inside their homes open their taps out of habit, momentarily forgetting that water has run dry for weeks.

Dheisha refugee camp, one of the biggest in the occupied West Bank, is one of several Palestinian camps suffering from longer-than-average water outages this month, sparking street protests by local youth.

In addition, residents in the northern West Bank districts of Jenin, Nablus and Salfit have also reported severe outages since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in early June.

While the mayors of those districts proclaim a state of crisis, residents of Dheisha and other surrounding refugee camps say their outages are as normal as the scorching summer heat.

Naji Owdah, director of community outreach centre Laylac and a resident of Dheisha, told Middle East Eye that long water outages are nothing new for the camp, but the current outage has lasted longer than usual.

“This happens every year. Different areas of the camp get different amounts of water, so it depends on who you ask, but for the most part there is water available to fill our tanks only a handful of times a month during the summer. When it takes too long for the water to come, like this month, the youth take to the streets,” Owdah said, referring to several late night protests over the past week where camp youth blocked the main road through the nearby city of Bethlehem.

The protests take place at night because of Ramadan, a period when days are quiet and nights come alive in Palestinian communities.

“They aren’t sure who they are protesting. It’s complicated, really, to say who is responsible for our water supply, but they know they don’t have water and it’s been too long. They just know they want water in their homes, and closing the streets seems to work. The next day the water usually comes,” Owdah said.

But so far, these protests have not been successful; Dheisha residents are still without water.

Aysar al-Shaifi, a young man who lives in Dheishsa, said it is the elderly, like his mother, who suffer worst from the outages.

“My mother, for instance, doesn’t have a job. Her work is in the house. She loves to deep clean every few days, and cook, especially for Ramadan,” Shaifi said.

“To be honest, it’s the old people who suffer the worst from the water outages. The young people have school and work and volunteering and friends - we aren’t home as much.”

Aysar al-Shaifi (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

When he is home, Shaifi said, everything revolves around the lack of water.

“It gets disgusting, the bathrooms especially. Imagine five or six people living in a house and you can’t flush the toilet,” he said.

“And so many other things. If I was planning to go to the gym or play sports with my friends, I wouldn’t right now because there is no water for a shower after. When we think of what to cook, we take into account the water, what to make and what will have the most dishes that we can’t wash, so many things are dependent on water.”

When asked who he blames for the water outage, like Owdah, Shaifi said it was complicated.

Some residents blame the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body responsible specifically for Palestinian refugee camps; some blame the Palestinian Authority (PA), for “giving preference” to non-refugee communities for things like water and electricity since registered refugees aren’t taxed. Some blame the Israeli occupation for controlling the West Bank water supply; others blame Palestinian individuals for siphoning off water from illegal water pipes.

“The responsibility is spread out,” Owdah said. “But what people are slowly starting to realise is that there are people taking advantage of the water situation. It’s like a water mafia.”

According to Owdah, the PA has turned a blind eye to businesses like quarries and water-truck companies which use a lot of water for their business and have allegedly taken to adding additional pipes off the main water lines that provide water to refugee camps.

“I’ve seen these pipes with my own eyes; they add their pipes near the camps because the camps don’t pay for water, but when we look at the amount of water that is going into the camps on the water meters, there are several extra zeros. The camps are for sure not using as much water as those meters say, and it’s because of these illegal pipes.”

Naji Owdah, resident of Dheisha and director of the community outreach center Laylac (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

Owdeh says that in many cases, the PA is actually benefiting from the illegal lines in one way or another.

“The PA definitely knows these pipes exist, but they do nothing about it. Why?” Owdeh asked. “It’s a whole network of corruption.”

The Israeli Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has also reported the existence of such illegal water lines. According to COGAT, the Palestinian Water Authority does little to stop the practice.

In a recent Facebook post, COGAT put the blame on the occupied West Bank for its water issues.

“Who actually prevents the access of running water? Palestinian residents themselves!” - the page’s social media spokesperson wrote, over a photo of a busted water pipe in a major pipeline near Salfit.

Even as COGAT has denied summer water cuts and claimed that Israel had actually been increasing water to Palestinian communities during Ramadan, the Israeli national water company Mekorot said in a statement that there had been “a broad reduction” in water for the whole of the occupied West Bank.

Camilla Corradin, advocacy task force coordinator for the Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) group, condemned Israel’s reduction of water in Palestinian communities.

“Although worrying, this comes as little surprise to EWASH. Every year, West Bank communities face similar issues, a direct result of Israel’s discriminatory policies and control over Palestinian water resources,” Corradin said.

On average, Palestinians receive 73 litres of water per capita per day, well below the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of 100 litres. Israelis on the other hand, receive an average of 240 litres per capita per day.

Corradin said refugees are hit the hardest when water reductions are made because residents of refugee camps do not pay for water.

“It still represents a very delicate issue because on the one hand, no one dares to challenge this status quo, with camps not paying for water supply,” Corradine told MEE. “On the other hand, when there are water shortages, those are the areas most disadvantaged and less prioritised - for this very reason that they are not paying.”

Owdah said he does not see that status quo changing anytime soon.

“We have paid for water with our blood,” Owdah said. “When there are clashes with the Israeli army it is the youth from the refugee camps out there resisting. When the Israeli forces come to the camps, our youth fight back. In many communities people stay in their homes, but not the camps.”

“When we are allowed to return to our land we will be happy to pay for water and electricity, but until then we are refugees. We did not ask to be here in these camps where our homes are on top of each other, where there is no privacy, where you can hear every noise our neighbours make in their homes. So it is our right, as refugees - just like any refugee in any camp - not to pay for things like water and electricity. But that does not mean anyone has the right to cut those needs. How can anyone live without water?”