A precious resource: how Israel uses water to control the West Bank

In occupied West Bank villages, Israeli-owned farms are flourishing, while Palestinians often do not have enough water to drink

Mahmoud Haj Mohammed stands on the roof of his family’s home in the occupied West Bank village of Jalud and points towards a clump of cypress trees on the opposite side of the valley.

He has just got back from his job at a concrete factory in the nearby city of Nablus, hot and tired in the last week of Ramadan, jeans covered in grey flecks of cement. The 32-year-old began working there two years ago, after the seizure of a key part of his family’s land by Israeli settlers eventually made it unviable to farm it any more.

“It’s easy to see where the settlers are. Look at the olive grove below the cypress,” Haj Mohammed said, as a herd of goats passed by. “That is our land, but we are not farming it. See how close together the trees are? That’s because the settlers have access to the water supply and proper irrigation. Compare it to our trees, the ones that are spaced out more, and not in neat rows.”

Water is one of the most precious resources in Israel and the Palestinian territories. This beautiful landscape – the historic fertile crescent – can be harsh and unforgiving. But with enough water, as the Book of Isaiah says, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.”

Israel is the world leader in water management and technology: last year, a first-of-its-kind project began pumping desalinated seawater from the Mediterranean northwards, to replenish the shrinking Sea of Galilee.

Yet rights groups contend that these successes are to the detriment of Palestinians; Israel controls about 80% of water reserves in the West Bank, but both the West Bank and Gaza Strip face severe water stress and drought.

n theory, no one living or working in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, can get connected to pipelines belonging to Israel’s national water company without proving ownership of the land or otherwise gaining a permit from the Israeli civil administration in the territories, known as Cogat. But in practice, access to water resources is a potent state-controlled weapon for the settlement movement, allowing Israeli-owned vineyards, olive groves, livestock farms and date plantations to flourish.

Israelis, including those living in settlements, use three times as much water a day as West Bank Palestinians do, according to a new report from the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem. In many places, it is difficult for Palestinian farmers to cultivate even low yields of crops such as wheat, lentils and chickpeas. Decreasing access to land and water thanks to settlement expansion means farming contributes just 2.6% of the territory’s GDP today.

About 450,000 Israelis have settled in what is now Area C since the occupation began in 1967 and are motivated for different reasons: some see reclaiming the biblical land of Israel as a religious or nationalistic mission, while others are drawn by the cheaper cost of living or business opportunities. Overall, their presence is viewed by the international community as illegal, and a leading obstacle to peace: the phenomenon of settler violence against Palestinians is growing.

A handful have become rich by cultivating thousands of acres of disputed land, establishing lucrative boutique wineries and high-grade medjool dates and olive oil brands for export. One of the biggest settlement agricultural businesses today is Meshek Achiya, founded in 2003 near the biblically significant settlement of Shilo, an area particularly notorious for land grabs and settler violence.

Local families say Meshek Achiya grew after seizing swathes of their land during the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) of the 2000s, when access for Palestinians in the area, including the Haj Mohammeds, was blocked by army checkpoints.

The Guardian’s attempts to reach several owners and directors at the company went unanswered. Meshek Achiya has claimed in legal filings that the land it farms was bought from other settlers.

“If we had more water, the village would grow more than beans and za’atar. But sometimes in the summer we don’t even have drinking water,” said Jamal Deeb, a resident of Qaryut, the next village to Jalud, where land claimed by several local families has also been taken over by Meshek Achiya.

“My family is in a good position because we have deeds and can prove we own it, but we are still fighting for decades. Dragging out the court battles is part of the strategy,” the 55-year-old said. “I don’t think I will ever see our trees on that side of the valley again.”

Meshek Achiya’s success – and that of many other Israeli settlement enterprises – would be impossible without access to increasingly large amounts of water that farmers need in the drought-prone area. Yet even though there are five eviction orders pending on some of the land controlled by the company, upheld by Israel’s supreme court, the entire operation still appears to be connected to the Israeli water agency’s supply.

In 2017, the last year before the water authority stopped publishing detailed data on agricultural water allocations in the West Bank, Meshek Achiya received about 100,000 cubic metres of water, or 274 cubic metres a day (one cubic metre = 1,000 litres). Palestinians living in Area C use about 20 litres of water a day, just a fifth of the 100 litres a day minimum set by the World Health Organization.

The story repeated itself across the West Bank, said Dror Etkes, an expert on Israeli settlement construction and infrastructure and the founder of the NGO Kerem Navot.

Its research shows that the same year, the Water Authority allocated 17,000 cubic metres to the family that runs the popular Psagot Winery, near Ramallah, where there is a demolition order against the chief executive’s villa and swimming pool. Psagot denied any illegal activity in an emailed response. Another 12,000 cubic metres went to a Meshek Achiya employee who has started his own vineyard.

A large sheep herding outpost – considered illegal under Israeli as well as international law – received 9,000 cubic metres. The wife of the owner of the Giv’ot Olam organic egg farm, another outpost renowned for violence, was the registered name for 111,000 cubic metres.

Meanwhile, the UN says that more than 270 water and sewage facilities used by Palestinians in Area C have been demolished in the past five years on the grounds that the infrastructure is illegal.

Cogat, the arm of the Israeli military responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, said in emailed comments that “allocation of water to Israeli agriculture in [the West Bank] is performed only after a thorough examination of the various aspects touching on land rights. When water is illegally diverted, the authorities take action in the area as they are legally entitled to do.”

The Israeli water authority directed requests for information to Cogat.

Etkes said: “It is easy to get rich when you don’t have to pay for the land and you’re hooked up to a water supply your neighbours don’t get.”

After 15 years of litigation, the Haj Mohammed family managed to win back 7 hectares (17 acres) – about a fifth of the land they claim – in a high court ruling in 2021. In February this year, Meshek Achiya’s olive trees were uprooted and moved, and Mahmoud and his brothers planted wheat for the first time in decades, in honour of their father. Haj Mohammed senior died in 2017; he never saw any of the family’s land returned.

“The settlers still come down from their homes on the hill. Last week they threatened to kill me,” he said, standing amid the freshly ploughed earth. On the tump above the field, three settlers sat and watched, a blue and white Israeli flag fluttering overhead.

“A lot of people in our village decided to leave. I am doing this for my father, but also for my children,” he said.