By Richard Lightbown
Around 90,000 Arab Bedouin live on their own land in the Negev which they have inhabited for generations, in some cases before the establishment of the state of Israel. As part of the Israeli Government’s policy to relocate Bedouin from their “unrecognized villages” into government-planned towns, the Water Commissioner had refused an application for hundreds of families to be connected to the Mekorot water company main. Many of the families are forced to buy their drinking water from a central location and pay for transport in unhygienic metal containers or use improvised plastic hose connections from water access points located several kilometers away.
In consequence the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) took the case to court on behalf of 128 families living in six villages that are unrecognized by the government. Adalah’s attorney argued that by withholding water the state was violating the families’ rights to dignity (including an adequate standard of living), health and life. He also argued that the government policy was racist and discriminatory and therefore illegal. On 13 September 2006 the Haifa District Court upheld the decision of the Water Commissioner.
In November 2006 Adalah submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court of Israel. This contained expert opinion from Prof Michael Alkan of Ben-Gurion University who considered that the villagers were at risk of dehydration, intestinal infections and other diseases such as dysentery as a result of the poor quality of their drinking water. This was corroborated by data from a survey by the Ministry of Health which mentioned “defective water-transportation systems…neglected or defective water tankers, improvised and defective water pipes – and all of these factors provide a breeding ground for bacteria, viruses, parasites and algae, which can lead to diseases, as a result of pollution.”
Adalah argued that the Drinking Water Allocation Committee [DWAC], which is ultimately under the authority of the Israel Lands Administration [ILA], designates its resources to controlling and oppressing the people that it is supposed to serve with the aim of relocating the Bedouin to government-planned towns by refusing them with basic services. In making his judgment the Water Commissioner had relied entirely on the recommendations of the DWAC, and neither of them had taken into consideration the hardship caused to the families by this decision. Adalah further contended that the government policy was racist and discriminatory since among other things the ILA had allocated large parcels of land for Jewish families in the Negev and provided all necessary basic services including the provision of drinking water. These latter settlements generally receive direct water connections even before they have obtained permission required by the Planning and Building Law.
The Supreme Court gave its decision on 5 June 2011. It rejected the appeal for residents of three of the villages, arguing that two of the appellants had access to water while the third had been given access to the main network. The Water committee was ordered to review the other three cases. Reading the ruling, Justice Procaccia said that the right to water is a constitutional right for all citizens of Israel which the state has a duty to provide since it stemmed from the constitutional rights to life, dignity and equality. However she said that the case posed a dilemma since the Bedouin were living illegally on “state land”. In consequence she ordered that the state should provide “minimum access to water” but unrealistically and perversely did not specify what constituted the “minimum”.
The director of Adalah’s Social and Economic Rights Unit, Sawsan Zaher, recognized the importance of the Supreme Court’s decision in the light of previous judgments which have totally negated the rights of the Bedouin, most of whom are not squatters. However he pointed out that the court did not decide that the Bedouin’s right to water is equal to that of other citizens of Israel, but had instead ruled that they have the right to “a minimal access to water sources” without specifying what this is. By giving undue weight to the “unrecognized” designation of the villages he considered that the court had tacitly approved of the policy of successive governments which punished the Arab Bedouin of Israel.
In its ruling the court had declared that the Bedouin communities had become a major problem of national importance with extensive implications in all areas of life, due to people taking the law into their own hands in deciding where to live. In consequence it had stated that the authorities may take the illegality of residence into account when considering the requests for water connections. Meanwhile Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied territory remain a major problem of international importance with extensive implications throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately Israeli authorities have yet to take this into account when considering water connections to people who have chosen to take both Israeli and International Law into their own hands.
– Richard Lightbown is a researcher and writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
– Adalah News Update, 27 November 2006; Appeal to the Supreme Court against Policy of not Providing Drinking Water to Arab Bedouin Living in the Unrecognized Villages in the Naqab.
– Adalah Press Release, 6 June 2011; Israeli Supreme Court: Arab Bedouin in the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev have the Right to "Minimal Access to Water".