Shuafat Ridge, East Jerusalem—It’s not yet summer when I arrive in East Jerusalem during a broiling heat wave. In the area known as Shuafat Ridge, bitter fights break out between neighbors this time of year, when water becomes more scarce and the neighborhood is rife with accusations of water theft. The tens of thousands of Palestinians who live here use around half the amount of water recommended by the World Health Organization—and they struggle to obtain even that.
Shuafat Ridge, on the eastern edge of Jerusalem, is cut off from the rest of the city by the twisting, eight-meter Separation Wall, which Israel began building here in 2005. Soaring apartment buildings, packed tightly into the cramped space allotted to these residents, loom over the barrier.
Just to the east of Shuafat is the huge Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, established in the early 1980s. The people living there can gaze down onto the backyards and dilapidated homes of what has become Jerusalem’s slum. Shuafat Ridge, like the land on which Pisgat Ze’ev is built and the rest of East Jerusalem, was annexed by Israel in 1967, though the international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty here.
While precise population data on Shuafat Ridge don’t exist, it is estimated that it has quadrupled in the past ten years, with some 80,000 people living in its four neighborhoods, which include a refugee camp. The antiquated water infrastructure is sufficient for just 15,000. Last year most people here went over a month without any running water (they survived by trucking water in from the West Bank and buying bottled water).
Meanwhile, the European Union rated Jerusalem among the top five cities in the world for water efficiency, management, and innovation. Indeed, Israel’s annual water technology exports have climbed to a peak of over $2 billion. Israel’s water technology has been praised since the state first claimed to make the desert bloom. At first, the industry helped to unify the young Jewish state. The government poured money into constructing the National Water Carrier, which diverted water from Lake Tiberias in the north to the Negev desert in the south, supplying the agricultural kibbutzim. Israel wrested control over the lake’s northern source by seizing Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 war, when it also conquered the West Bank with its valuable aquifers.
Today, Israel offers the products associated with its so-called water triumphs to the world, promising to liberate other regions from the threats of drought and scarcity. At home, it uses water to control Palestinians.
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Dahoud Abu Assab, or Abu Adam, picked me up just outside the Separation Wall in his dusty Range Rover. Wearing a white baseball cap and matching collared shirt, Abu Adam offered me his blistered hand before driving us through the Israeli military checkpoint to get to Shuafat Ridge.
As the vehicle trundled down the crowded main street, Abu Adam pointed out countless hazards: a roadside gas stand spewing benzene onto the street, a burning heap of trash close by, no sidewalks, and a cavernous pothole. Last year, a 7-year-old girl was killed by a car after falling into it on her way home from school.
While Israel’s construction of the wall, followed by a near-total cessation of municipal services here, would seem to constitute official government abandonment of this neighborhood, residents still have to pay city taxes. Indeed, Palestinian residents in occupied East Jerusalem have a precarious status: The vast majority are not citizens of Israel, but they do carry Jerusalem ID cards, which allow them to move relatively freely throughout Jerusalem and the State of Israel, in contrast to their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But they must meet certain onerous criteria to maintain residency and status as Jerusalemites; since 1967, Israel has revoked the status of over 14,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem. “They are treating us as if we are not married and we are not divorced,” Abu Adam says, referring to the Israeli government.
Efrat Cohen-Bar, an Israeli architect who specializes in urban planning, particularly in East Jerusalem, describes this contradiction as “schizophrenic.” For the past eleven years she has worked for Bimkom, an Israeli NGO guided by the principle that planning, space, and architecture are integral aspects of human rights. Bimkom advocates fair planning policies in Israel, East Jerusalem, and Area C of the West Bank, where the Israeli military has full control.
“They [the planning authorities] wanted to put on the other side of the wall as many Palestinians as possible, but at the same time maintain the area as part of annexed Greater Jerusalem,” Cohen-Bar explains to me.
Bimkom’s office is located in West Jerusalem in a neighborhood called Rehavia. Like most of the Jewish side of the city, the streets are clearly marked, with comfortably wide sidewalks. The buildings are only two to four stories high. There’s a reason for this well-functioning, harmonious system: It was developed according to a 1920s plan designed by the renowned German-Jewish architect Richard Kauffmann. After he emigrated to Palestine in 1920, Kauffmann was commissioned by the British Mandate authorities, who controlled Palestine at the time, to design several neighborhoods in West Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem, on the other hand, was never provided such a comprehensive plan. By the 1990s, only one-third of East Jerusalem had housing development plans, and Shuafat Ridge has received none, Cohen-Bar found in her research. Shuafat’s residents are virtually barred from obtaining construction permits. “The idea was if people can’t build, they will leave Jerusalem,” Cohen-Bar says.
In fact, the relentless scarcity of water in Shuafat Ridge is integral to Israel’s larger strategy for East Jerusalem. In the mid-1970s, the director of policy planning for the Jerusalem municipality, Yisrael Kimhi, explained that “one of the cornerstones in the planning of Jerusalem is the demographic question.” The “demographic balance,” as it’s more frequently known, refers to the conclusions of the Gafni Committee, which was established in 1972 to determine development in the city. Adapting the committee’s recommendations, the government eventually decided to maintain a 70-to-30 ratio of Jews to Arabs in Greater Jerusalem. Throughout the tenure of Teddy Kollek, who served as Jerusalem’s mayor from 1965 to 1993, the government adopted a policy of neglect toward East Jerusalem to meet those recommendations—an approach acknowledged by Kollek himself as well as former city employees who served under him.
Speaking at Bimkom’s office, Cohen-Bar says, “They use the planning system as a tool for demographic balance, but with no success.” The statistics bear this out: As of 2012, the ratio of Israeli Jews to Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem was 61 to 39. Even so, the effect of these punitive policies can be seen in Shuafat Ridge, where people are corralled into a ghetto.
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Abu Adam lived in Shuafat refugee camp until he bought some land and built a house for his family in one of the neighborhoods in Shuafat Ridge. Like tens of thousands of other residents who have built homes across this valley, he knew there was no point in waiting for Israel to issue him a permit, so he built his house without one.
And like nearly everyone else, Abu Adam’s water connection is considered illegal. It’s hooked up through an improvised system designed by resourceful residents: From the 200 meters that are connected to the central water supply, a spidery network of skinny plastic tubes stretches toward the surrounding apartment buildings. Small motors propelling the water are scattered throughout the neighborhood. But even with this impressive home-grown system, the three kilometers of pipes at the bottom of the valley are not sufficient for the whole camp. People who live at the higher elevations are the last to fill their tanks with water—if there’s any left.
“People get insane,” a passing man tells me, when he realizes that Abu Adam is talking to me about water. Pointing to the top of the valley, he added, “People up there cry from lack of water.”
Almost none of the 80,000 residents pay a water bill. The meters that are legally connected to the central supply measure not just the consumption of the homes directly connected to them but hundreds of others tapping illegally into them, thus making payment impossible. The residents say they would be far happier to pay and be connected, but they’ve run into endless government roadblocks.
At the height of last year’s critical shortage, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court to find a durable solution. Arguing that all people have a right to water, ACRI called upon the state to connect residents to an official source. About two weeks later, water flowed back into the pipes as before. “But since the humanitarian crisis ended, no real solution has been reached,” says Anne Suciu, one of ACRI’s lawyers working on the case.
Abu Adam takes me to the home of Musa Ahmed Hussein Hassan at the very top of the valley. As one of the local mukhtars, he is responsible for solving disputes between neighbors—many of which are over water. Hassan says in both summer and winter, his tap is dry during the day. He stays up until midnight every night just to fill his water tank because “by morning, there won’t be any left.”
No one can tell me why the water was shut off last summer, but Suciu says there are rumors that Hagihon, the Israeli company that provides water to the city, intentionally turned it off so the state would finally be compelled to intervene.
“Thieves,” Eli Cohen, Hagihon’s deputy director, tells me, referring to the Palestinians living in Shuafat Ridge. Cohen’s assistant, who is translating during our interview, tries to soften his boss’s words. “The more politically correct term is ‘consuming water without measurement,’ ” he says. But Cohen says his company is fed up with losing tens of millions of shekels a year providing water to thousands of people who don’t pay for it.
In a September 2013 interview, Cohen blamed the government for not allowing his company to improve the dilapidated water infrastructure in the area. “We came even to the most senior government offices, including meetings with ministers, and I’m sorry to say we do not receive responses.”
When ACRI filed its petition against Hagihon and several state agencies last year, Hagihon proposed a 189.5 million shekel ($55 million) project that would connect all houses, regardless of legality, to a totally revamped water supply consisting of thirty kilometers of pipes. But the government bodies refused to fund it, saying they would never provide water to illegal structures.
The Supreme Court upheld the government’s position. Invoking an earlier ruling against Bedouins in Israel’s Negev who had refused to leave so-called “unrecognized” villages, the court ruled that the state is only obliged to provide “reasonable access to sources of water at the minimal level” so as to provide an “incentive for lawful settlement.” If planning has failed to impose the demographic “balance” Israel wants for Jerusalem, denial of water may be the state’s punishment for those who have defied it.
Hagihon returned to the negotiating table with a much less extensive and far cheaper plan, which the state has accepted on condition that residents pay for it themselves. But Suciu says the cheaper plan will do nothing to help those who live at the top of the valley, and that residents are not willing to pay for substandard service. In the most recent development, the state has proposed an entirely new way to collect money from residents without meters so as to avoid investing any money of its own: They will measure the total consumption of water and divide the cost equally among the population. “The water authority is trying to make sure people pay without making sure they get their right to water,” Suciu says. The Supreme Court has referred a longer-term solution to the National Security Council, the political body in the prime minister’s office that was responsible for overseeing construction of the Separation Wall.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of this summer, according to Suciu, some areas of Shuafat Ridge have already gone up to three days without a drop of running water.
Whether in the West Bank or Jerusalem, Palestinians’ right to water has been reduced to a “right” to purchase water from Israel—which not only maintains control over all natural resources in the region but refuses to allow Palestinians the water connections that are routinely granted not only to Israelis inside Israel but to illegal settlements as well. For Palestinians in Shuafat Ridge, even this right is compromised by Israel’s goal of demographic dominance.