Timothy Seidel: Water and Resistance

By Timothy Seidel

The view from the Palestinian village of Nahhalin, in the west Bethlehem area, is sobering. This small village—along with the villages of Husan, Battir, Wadi Fuqin, and Al Walaja—are becoming more and more isolated from Bethlehem. As Israeli colonization in the Etzion bloc grows and as the Wall continues to cut deeply into the West Bank strangulating these communities, these Palestinian villagers have little access to the rest of the Israeli occupied West Bank. Even now, Israel is burrowing out a tunnel under the major settler bypass road running through the Etzion bloc, that will provide “transportational contiguity” for this one of many isolated islands of land on 40 to 50 percent of the West Bank that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice want to sell to the world as “the state of Palestine.” [1] 

Stuck between the “Green Line”—the 1949 Armistice Line that separates Israel from the West Bank—and the Wall, Palestinians from Nahhalin find themselves among some 60,000 Palestinians living in the “seam zone,” that is that western segregation zone between the Wall and the Green Line which includes roughly 11 percent of the West Bank and that will ultimately be annexed to the “state of Israel” in Israel’s unilateral plan to define its own borders.

When I last visited Nahhalin, I was joined by my friends at the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ). [2] ARIJ had begun a waste water treatment project in Nahhalin that will now be duplicated to provide rural Palestinian areas in the West Bank with new sources of water for irrigation. ARIJ’s water and environment research unit will install on-site waste water treatment systems for 180 homes, providing direct benefits to about 1,800 people. The project gets underway this year and will be completed in 2010.

Nader Sh. Hrimat from ARIJ pointed out to me that scarcity of fresh water supplies and restricted access to traditional water supplies creates ongoing shortages of water for agricultural purposes. These new systems will not only improve access to water, they improve management of waste water, said Nader, explaining that the re-use of treated wastewater for irrigation is now considered to be one of the most feasible and economical ways to utilize household waste water in a sanitary manner.

The anticipated success of expanding this project to 180 homes is expected to encourage more Palestinian villages to install on-site treatment systems. In addition to addressing water shortages and water pollution concerns, these systems are also expected to increase agricultural productivity and food security, a function all the more important considering that over a third of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are, with another 12 percent at risk of becoming, “food insecure.” [3] Treatment units will be manufactured locally and create much-needed employment opportunities here where rampant unemployment has contributed to a poverty rate of over 33 percent (with a quarter living in “deep poverty”). [4]

On the surface, this might simply appear to be another development project, one that is similar to many others around the world. However, in this context of ongoing Israeli colonization and occupation of Palestinian life and land, such simple acts of waste water treatment and sustainable development are not only peacebuilding initiatives in their own right but they also become powerful acts of nonviolent resistance.

Another example would be the next phase of a hydrology project in the northern part of the West Bank with the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG). [5] I recently joined Abdul-Latif from PHG in a field visit to the Palestinian villages of Jayyus and Kafr Jammal near Qalqilya where farmers are cut off from their agricultural lands by the Israeli separation barrier. This hydrology project in its various phases has sought to assist farmers in keeping a presence on their lands on the other side of the Wall, the “seam zone,” by maintaining well pumps and irrigation systems.

Projects such as these give Palestinian people greater control over their natural resources, explained Nader. Water resources, he noted, are particularly vulnerable because Israel controls over 80 percent of the Palestinian groundwater resources in the West Bank, restricting access to water for agricultural irrigation and other purposes. [6]

Abdul-Latif also pointed this out to me. With Israeli control over water resources, and Palestinians captive to Israeli water companies, Abdul-Latif asks, “Where is the infrastructure for this ‘Palestinian state’?” Abdul-Latif then pointed out to me the citrus lying on the ground having rotted off the trees as another sign of the economic strangulation on these communities. These fruits go unpicked because Palestinian farmers have very limited access to a market of any sort to sell their goods due to the Israeli closure system in the West Bank. And when they can sell their goods somewhere, Israel has flooded the market with cheap fruits from Israel (and Jordan) that these farmers simply cannot compete with.

These indicators point to what many see as the imminent demise of a “two-state” solution to this terrible conflict and the solidification—through this structure of occupation, colonization, and apartheid—of Israeli domination over the Occupied Territories. And with the absence of any viable economic infrastructure, those calling for investment in Palestinian society as a “positive” response to the “critical” call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions need to understand the context of this structure that holds Palestinians captive in “Bantustans” as cheap laborers and consumers—a structure that will not benefit Palestinians or Israelis in the long run.

A hydrology initiative such as this is the form that a relevant nonviolent resistance has taken in the Occupied Territories. And it goes unnoticed by many in North America because it is not as recognizable as demonstrations or sit-ins. But in a context where so many pressures are exerted on Palestinian communities to leave their homes due to economic, social, or political forces (or other softer forms of what is essentially ethnic cleansing), assistance by the international community to help these communities simply be, simply exist, is the most salient form of nonviolent resistance that Palestinians live out on a daily basis. 

This is why when I hear people ask, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi, or the Palestinian King, or the Palestinian Mandela?” (once again blaming the victim for their victimhood and absolving the oppressor by placing the responsibility and the initiative on the shoulders of the oppressed, which makes one want to respond with a “Where is the Israeli Mandela or de Klerk?”) I think of the Nader’s and Abdul-Latif’s of Palestine who exercise courage, persistence, and steadfastness in the face of all of these pressures of dispossession, colonization, occupation, and most recently international boycott, and through the seemingly mundane acts of farming, reclaiming land, and water and food security initiatives truly resist injustice and truly pursue a sustainable peace born of justice in this broken land.

-Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past three years.


1. See Jeff Halper’s recent comments on this in “The Livni-Rice Plan: Towards a Just Peace or Apartheid?” ICAHD.org, 2 May 2007, http://www.icahd.org/eng/news.asp?menu=5&submenu=1&item=433.
2. See http://www.arij.org/.
3. See the IRIN report, “One-third of Palestinians ‘food insecure’,” The Electronic Intifada, 22 March 2007, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6713.shtml and “Growing poverty, unemployment threaten Palestinians’ ability to feed their families,” UN News, 22 February 2007, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6583.shtml or “Poor Palestinians unable to purchase enough food,” WFP Press Release, 2 February 2007, http://www.wfp.org/english/?ModuleID=137&Key=2377.
4. See “Financial boycott sends Palestinian poverty numbers soaring, finds UN report,” UN News, 24 November 2006, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20725&Cr=Palestin&Cr1= and Rory McCarthy, “UN plea for millions in Palestinian aid amid fears of economic collapse,” The Guardian, 8 December 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1967251,00.html.
5. See http://www.phg.org/.
6. See the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department summary on water at http://www.nad-plo.org/listing.php?view=nego_permanent_water.

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