Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Mar19/06)
Geneva, 20 Mar (Kanaga Raja) – For the almost five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, the degradation and alienation of their water supply, the exploitation of their natural resources and the defacing of their environment is symptomatic of the lack of any meaningful control they have over their daily lives, a UN human rights expert has said.
The Israeli occupation, with its appetite for territory and settlement-implantation, and its sequestration of natural resources, has become virtually indistinguishable from annexation, said Michael Lynk, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
This assessment was highlighted by the Special Rapporteur in his report on 18 March to the on-going fortieth session of the UN Human Rights Council.
His was one of a slew of reports pertaining to Israel that was presented at the Council on that day. (For details of other reports pertaining to Israel, see SUNS #8867 dated 15 March 2019 and SUNS #8869 dated 19 March 2019.)
“Israel’s policy of usurping Palestinian natural resources and disregarding the environment has robbed the Palestinians of vital assets, and means they simply cannot enjoy their right to development,” said Mr Lynk, in presenting his report to the Council.
“Its approach to the natural resources of the Occupied Palestinian Territory has been to use them as a sovereign country would use its own assets, with vastly discriminatory consequences,” he added.
“However, Israeli practices in relation to water, extraction of other resources, and environmental protection, raise serious concerns,” said Mr Lynk.
Speaking at the Council session on 18 March, the Special Rapporteur highlighted the primary theme in his current report, namely, the right to water, natural resources and the environment.
“The laws of occupation and international human rights law guarantee that peoples living under occupation are entitled to the protection of their sovereignty over their natural wealth,” said Mr Lynk.
Water, and its effective control and management, is an essential component for the exercise of sovereignty in the modern world.
“Yet, as Israel’s 51-year-old occupation has become more entrenched, the deeply inequitable distribution of water imposed by Israel illustrates the utter lack of any substantive control Palestinians exercise over their daily lives,” said the Special Rapporteur.
Israel has strayed extremely far from its legal responsibilities as an occupying power.
Indeed, its temporary-permanent occupation of the Palestinian territory has been the photo negative of what is required of a faithful occupying power.
“It has regarded the Palestinian territory as its own for acquisitive purposes and someone else’s territory with respect to the protection of the people under occupation,” said Mr Lynk.
WATER, NATURAL RESOURCES AND THE ENVIRONMENT
According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, in Gaza, the collapse of the coastal aquifer, the only natural source of drinking water in the Strip and now almost entirely unfit for human consumption, is contributing to a significant health crisis among the two million Palestinians living there.
Throughout the West Bank, Israeli quarry companies extract approximately 17 million tons of stone annually, almost all of which is destined for the Israeli local market, notwithstanding strict prohibitions in international law against a military power economically exploiting an occupied territory.
The Dead Sea and its plentiful natural resources, part of which lies within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is off-limits to any Palestinian development while Israeli companies are permitted to harvest the minerals in an apparent act of pillage, said the rights expert.
He also noted that groves of West Bank olive trees – which are both an economic wellspring for thousands of Palestinian farmers and a symbol of Palestinian identity – are routinely destroyed by Israeli settlers with virtual impunity.
The transfer of Israeli industrial waste to treatment plants in the West Bank – through the creation of so-called “sacrifice zones” that are less rigorously regulated – contributes to the environmental scarring of the occupied territory, without the involvement or consent of the Palestinians.
“For the almost five million Palestinians living under occupation, the degradation and alienation of their water supply, the exploitation of their natural resources and the defacing of their environment is symptomatic of the lack of any meaningful control they have over their daily lives as Israel, the occupying power, exercises its military administrative powers in a sovereign-like fashion, with vastly discriminatory consequences,” said the Special Rapporteur.
All peoples, including peoples under occupation, enjoy the sovereign right to control their natural wealth, and international law strictly regulates what an occupying power may do with the resources of an occupied territory.
“Yet the Israeli occupation – with its appetite for territory and settlement-implantation, and its sequestration of natural resources – has become virtually indistinguishable from annexation.”
According to the rights expert, water, and its effective control and management, is an essential component for the exercise of sovereignty in the modern world.
Yet, as Israel’s 51-year-old occupation has become more entrenched, the deeply inequitable distribution of water imposed by Israel illustrates the utter lack of any substantive control Palestinians exercise over their daily lives.
With the collapse of the natural sources of drinking water in Gaza and the inability of Palestinians to access most of their water sources in the West Bank, water has become a potent symbol of the systematic violations of human rights occurring in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
While Israelis, including those living in illegal settlements, enjoy unlimited running water year-round, several million Palestinians endure water shortages caused either by contamination or by lack of access.
“The irony is manifest: while Israel has created world-class hydro technology for the creation and export of desalination plants, advanced irrigation systems and the recovery and productive recycling of wastewater, the Palestinian territory it occupies is water insecure.”
The report pointed out that following the start of Israel’s belligerent occupation in 1967, it placed all Palestinian water usage and development under its military control.
Military Order No. 92 (August 1967) transferred authority over all water resources in the occupied territory to the Israeli military, while Military Order No. 157 (November 1967) prohibited Palestinians from constructing new water installations or the maintenance of existing installations without a military permit.
These orders remain in force today, and apply only to Palestinians, not to Israeli settlers, who are governed by Israeli law.
In 1982, ownership of all West Bank water supply systems was assumed by Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, which is 50 percent owned by the Government of Israel.
Although the Oslo accords which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in the early and mid- 1990s devolved some governance powers to the Palestinian Authority, Israel did not relinquish its primary domination over the waters of the West Bank.
In this context, the Special Rapporteur pointed to three significant developments arising from the Oslo accords.
First, the accords created three separate areas of control in the West Bank , with Israel in overall security control over the entire territory, and the Palestinian authority exercising civil control over 40% of the territory of the West Bank, and within that, nominal security control over only 18%.
In Area C, consisting of 60% of the West Bank, Israel has exclusive civil and security control.
All of Israel’s West Bank settlements are in Area C, which also contains the majority of the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s agricultural lands, water sources and underground reservoirs, to which the Palestinian Authority does not have access.
Second, Article 40 of the 1995 Interim Oslo Accord provided that Israel would recognize “Palestinian water rights” in the West Bank. However, these rights were not defined.
The allocation of the waters from the Mountain Aquifer under the 1995 Accord was overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour – Israel was to receive 80% of the waters and the Palestinians only 20%.
Under Oslo, the Palestinian Authority acquired some powers to manage water, but only within Areas A and B; most of the infrastructure for water acquisition and development happens to lie in the Israeli-controlled Area C.
While the Oslo accords were designed to last only until 1999, they remain in place to this day, and their inequitable water arrangements have actually widened.
In 2014, it was estimated that the share of the Mountain Aquifer waters was 87% for Israel and 13% for the Palestinians.
Third, the 1995 Oslo Accord established the Joint Water Committee, made up of an equal number of designated water officials from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Committee is authorized to regulate water and sanitation in the West Bank, including granting permits, drilling wells and extracting water.
However, as the World Bank has noted, the Committee created an effective Israeli veto over any management measures and infrastructure projects proposed by the Palestinian Authority.
Among the many features of the inequitable arrangements for water use and management in the West Bank, two in particular were identified by the Special Rapporteur.
First, there is a significant disparity between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians in their access to and consumption of water.
A recent estimate found that residents of Israel and Israeli settlers consume approximately three times as much water per person per day (250 litres) as do West Bank Palestinians (84 litres).
According to B’Tselem (an Israeli NGO), the Palestinians are currently extracting only about 75% of their share of water as specified in the Oslo accords (20 % of the total aquifer), notwithstanding the fact that the Palestinian population in the West Bank has nearly doubled since 1995.
Second, the Israeli settlements have played a significant role in perpetuating the discriminatory extraction and use of water in the West Bank.
All Israeli settlements are linked to the Mekorot national water system and receive developed-world levels of water for drinking, sanitation and commercial use.
By way of contrast, approximately 180 Palestinian communities in Area C have no connection to a water network, leaving them to either rely on shallow wells or to purchase water from tankers at a considerable price.
The disparities are most acute in the Jordan Valley: figures from 2013 reveal that the 10,000 Israeli settlers in the Valley were provided with the lion’s share of the 32 million cubic metres of water drilled that year from the Mountain Aquifer by Mekorot for their domestic and agricultural use.
In comparison, the entire 2.7 million Palestinians across the West Bank were allocated only 103 million cubic metres from the Western Aquifer.
Gaza’s water situation is a crisis verging on a humanitarian catastrophe, said the Special Rapporteur.
The United Nations estimated in 2017 that more than 96% of the Coastal Aquifer groundwater – Gaza’s sole source of natural water – had become unfit for human consumption, and the Aquifer would be irreversibly damaged as a drinking source by 2020 without a radical intervention.
Gaza has been brought to the brink by multiple factors, including: its increasing population; the resulting over-extraction of the source aquifer; the substantial contamination of the Aquifer by sewage and seawater; a feeble and steeply shrinking economy coupled with extreme poverty; the repeated destruction afflicted on its water, sanitation and energy supply systems by Israel through its various military campaigns since 2006; Israel’s suffocating blockade, including the restrictions it imposes on the import of dual-use items (including water pumps, spare parts, pipes and purification chemicals); a serious intra-Palestinian political split; and declining funding from international donors.
Gaza’s water crisis is creating a serious public health danger for its inhabitants. The lack of a secure power supply – because of a war-damaged power-plant, a chronic lack of fuel to operate what remains of the plant, and insecure external sources – has meant that Gaza’s waste treatment system functions poorly, when it functions at all.
This results in the discharge of 110,000 cubic meters of partially or entirely untreated waste daily into the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel’s approach towards the natural resources of the Occupied Palestinian Territory has been to use them as a sovereign country would use its own assets.
“Rather than obey the repeated entreaties of the international community to respect and apply international law during its occupation, Israel has repeatedly relied on disfigured and fringe interpretations of the law and on raw economic entitlement to justify its exploitation of the natural wealth of the occupied territory.”
The Special Rapporteur cited three examples to illustrate this phenomena.
(1) Quarrying: Israel has permitted mining concessions to ten Israeli-opera ted quarries in Area C of the West Bank. According to Yesh Din (an Israeli NGO), the volume of quarrying has increased substantially in recent years, with production reaching 17 million tons in 2015.
Approximately 94% of the production – which yields stone, gravel and gypsum – is shipped to Israel for construction and infrastructure purposes. These West Bank operations make up between 20-30% of Israel’s annual quarrying requirements, with royalties paid to the State of Israel.
(2) The Dead Sea: Part of the Dead Sea lies within the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It contains substantial natural and mineral wealth, including groundwater, salt, sand, potash and mud (the latter of which is used for the cosmetics industry).
The Sea lies within Area C of the West Bank, and significant portions of th e land surrounding it have been declared by Israel as closed military zones and off-limits to Palestinians.
According to a 2012 study by Al-Haq (a Palestinian NGO), there were approximately 50 Israeli cosmetic factories operating in the Dead Sea area (some of which were operating in occupied Palestine, and others in Israel), extracting the mud and other related raw materials to create finished products for both the domestic and export markets.
(3) Oil and Gas Development: Presently, the State of Palestine is almost completely dependent upon Israel for its energy and power supplies.
This not only results in large revenue losses because of duties and surcharges imposed by Israel for the import of gas, oil and petroleum through Israel into the Occupied Palestinian Territory, but also contributes to a distorted economy that cannot manage a vital feature of its own development.
Yet, there is potential, the Special Rapporteur pointed out.
In the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza and Israel lie substantial o il, gas and shale oil deposits. Israel has maintained a tight naval blockade of Gaza since 2006, and it has closed the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s waters to any resource exploration. Since 2016, Israel has been auctioning marine blocks off its coast for resource exploration by international oil and gas corporations.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the occupying power exercises substantial control over the fate of the environment, and in some cases its actions have negative human rights consequences, in particular as a result of the environmental impact of these actions, said Mr Lynk.
Further, the environmental impact of Israel’s practices may be felt not only by Palestinians, but also by Israelis and others in the region.
In this context, the Special Rapporteur highlighted two areas of concern.
(1) Waste Disposal: At least 15 Israeli waste treatment facilities have been created in the West Bank – an area beyond Israel’s domestic environmental regulatory regime – to treat such hazardous pollutants as sewage sludge, used oils, solvents, electronic waste, batteries and infectious medical waste.
In a recent report, B’Tselem has argued that Israel has sought to transfer the high costs of complying with rigorous domestic environmental regulations by creating so-called “sacrifice zones” in the West Bank.
Israel views the West Bank as a separate legal entity where its environmental laws do not apply, yet it treats the territory as its own in that it does not seek the consent of the Palestinian authority in order to dispose of waste.
“Israel’s actions would appear to violate its trustee obligations as an occupying power, and breach its human rights duties to ensure the provision of quality public health and hygiene for the protected population.”
(2) Dead-Red Sea Project: Since 2013, Israel, Jordan and Palestine have been negotiating a water project that would carry water from the Red Sea to the southern part of the Dead Sea, where it would be desalinated. As part of the project, an estimated 32 million cubic metres of water would be sold annually to the Palestinians and transported to the West Bank (22 million cubic metres) and Gaza (10 million cubic metres).
Some have heralded the project as a harbinger of prosperity and political cooperation. Others, particularly human rights experts, have raised concerns about the serious environmental damage already done to the Dead Sea through the significant overexploitation of its resources and waters.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
According to the Special Rapporteur, an occupying power that took its responsibilities under international law seriously would rule in the best interests of the population under occupation, and aim to end its alien rule as soon as reasonably possible. It would recognize that the territory’s natural wealth, environment and resources belongs to the protected people.
As such, he said, it would encourage them to assume increasing authority an d management over this wealth as a necessary precondition for a short and successful occupation, and a peaceful and cooperative future.
“An occupying power governed by these principles would not pillage. It would respect both public and private property. Any development or use of the natural resources would be conducted strictly within the limits of usufruct. It would seek to conserve and to preserve.”
Above all, it would not appropriate the occupied territory’s natural resources for its own gain or exploitation.
Israel has strayed extremely far from these legal responsibilities, said Mr Lynk.
Indeed, its temporary-permanent occupation of the Palestinian territory has been the photo negative of what is required of a faithful occupying power. During its five decades as occupant, it has appropriated private and public property without lawful authority.
It has regarded the Palestinian territory as its own for acquisitive purposes and someone else’s territory with respect to the protection of the people under occupation. Its expropriation of Palestinian hydro resources breaches both international humanitarian and human rights law, and scorns the principles that underlie the right to water.
Its usurpation of the territory’s natural resources and its disregard for its environment robs the Palestinians of vital assets that it requires should it ever achieve its freedom.
“The right to development in Palestine has become a dead letter. Can we not do the math to understand that these realities belie any visible path to Palestinian self-determination, and instead lead to a darker future that portends dangers to both peoples?”
With respect to natural resources and the environment, the rights expert recommended that the Government of Israel immediately take the following measures:
(a) To end practices which infringe on Palestinians’ access to their natural resources, in violation of Israel’s duties as an occupying power, and which have a negative impact of the realization of human rights for the protected Palestinian population;
(b) Ensure equitable access to clean water, which is both a fundamental human right in itself as well as an integral component for the realization of a range of other human rights;
(c) End the extraction of natural resources not undertaken for the benefit of the protected population, but instead for the benefit of the occupying power, a practice which is prohibited by international humanitarian law;
(d) Ensure that hazardous waste is disposed of in compliance with international standards and that waste disposal does not infringe upon the human rights of the protected population, and recognize that disposal of hazardous material is an issue which impacts all surrounding areas given the interconnectedness of the local environment;
(e) Ensure that, during its remaining time as the occupying power, all prior agreements on water between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are renegotiated in order to establish true equity and cooperation in the ownership, exploration, distribution and use of water sources in the region.